Manitoulin STEM team hosts successful summer think tank

·6 min read

Sustainability should be included as part of environmental STEM, and Manitoulin Streams joined members of Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS)’s FIRST Robotics Competition Team 6865 Manitoulin Metal Robotics to host the Island’s first STEM and Sustainability Conference on August 8. Promoting climate action and sustainability within other teams’ goals and initiatives and meeting and collaborating with other groups were the main objectives of the day long event. Participants travelled from as far away as London, Ontario and included some management from the FIRST community.

FIRST stands for ‘For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.’ It is an international youth organization that operates the FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST LEGO League Challenge, FIRST LEGO League Explore, FIRST LEGO League Discover and FIRST Tech Challenge competitions. MSS students and FIRST Team 6865 members Jocelyn Kuntsi and Alex Wilson-Zegil organized the conference, supported by Seija Deschenes, coordinator of Manitoulin Streams, and MSS teacher Yana Bauer.

“Our team has been really focused this year on getting other FIRST teams involved in Environmental STEM,” said Alex, a Grade 10 student with an interest in earth and space sciences. “We did this with our carbon calculator and we thought it would be a great opportunity over the summer to get other FIRST teams involved and try to change their perspective or give them more insight on environmental STEM and how important it is.” It’s important the technologies of the future will be sustainable, so outreach and conferences like this are important in getting the message out, she added.

Jocelyn is entering Grade 12 and this will be her fourth year on the robotics team. Right now, she’s interested in physics, astronomy and quantum mechanics, but she’s also really passionate about environmental issues. “Our team over the years has been involved in environmental STEM, working on bringing it into the FIRST community,” she said. “I think we’ve really come into that role of bringing in environmental STEM, which is really important to our team. We wanted to make a more widespread initiative and try to involve as many teams as possible and do outreach outside of the Island. That’s kind of what we were thinking in terms of this conference. It’s also a good starting place for getting the discussion going within the FIRST community.”

“The weather did affect our agenda; however, we had a flexible group who was really engaged,” said Ms. Bauer.

After a sunrise ceremony to start the day, led by Elder Jean Debassige, the MSS students provided a demonstration on how to use the carbon calculator that was created by the robotics club to help offset their carbon footprint while they create robots and participate in robotics competitions. Dr. Deborah McGregor presented on integrating Anishinaabe environmental stewardship into STEM and environmental science. Dr. McGregor, from Birch Island, is a York University/Osgoode Hall professor and Canada Research Chair on Indigenous Environmental Justice.

“Dr. McGregor’s talk definitely sparked conversations,” Ms. Bauer said.

Much of Dr. McGregor’s research on environmental justice focuses on these big challenges by engaging with different ways of knowledges. How do Indigenous and other people’s knowledge work in STEM, because STEM is heavily biased towards certain ways of generating knowledge, Dr. McGregor asked. In the Indigenous studies research world, there is a lot of emphasis on stories, she said. “There is a lot of knowledge within them. What do these stories tell us about what’s happening and how we’re supposed to deal with the future?”

A lot has to do with responsibility and proper conduct in relation to other people, to the natural world, to the ancestors and to future generations. “What are our ethical obligations and responsibilities to the natural world and to future generations? Right now, I hate to say, a lot of the future generations are inheriting a lot of problems and I think we have to shift our thinking so they start inheriting solutions.”

“One of the things from Dr. McGregor’s presentation that really stuck with me was instead of waking up and thinking about what you can take from the day, you should think about what you should give for the day,” said Jocelyn. “I really want to implement that into my life because I think it’s an important lesson in giving back to the community, especially when you’re thinking from an environmental perspective. Also, I think it just proved to me further that the more people you can get involved in environmental movements and working towards sustainability, the more efficient it will be and the better the future will look. It just inspires me to keep going and to keep pushing with our team and with members of the robotics community.”

Participants ended up braving the elements and planted 64 trees to help offset the carbon footprint of the conference. “It was a great way to connect with place and learn from the land,” said Ms. Bauer.

“It was most definitely the most messy part but I really liked the tree planting,” Jocelyn said. She’s a fan of using action to make change. “Even though it was pouring rain, it was just really good to see the end result of all the trees planted. It did go really fast. We planted something like 60 trees in half an hour, which is pretty crazy when you think about it.”

Once back inside, an “amazing” lunch featuring Anishinaabe tacos provided by Karen McGraw was followed by a Manitoulin Streams staff presentation on how their organization uses natural infrastructure for stream restoration. Manitoulin Streams’ Liam Campbell led a discussion about adaptation and waterkeeper Maylen Moffatt spoke about the significant challenges water is facing and how connected all these issues are.

Discussions resumed with design challenges regarding robotics and how they can be used for stewardship activities. Alex said her favourite part of the day was discussing what everyone learned during the day and sharing opinions and perspectives on it. “We can maybe improve things through different perspectives,” she said. “I gained some valuable knowledge, that this is going to require teamwork to keep STEM sustainable. A lot of the time people are taught to do things on their own but it’s going to take everyone to try and make this happen and keeping in mind different stories while we’re working on this is important as well.” She found the need to hear Anishinaabe speakers and their stories and consider how they can be applied to environmental STEM, both important and interesting “I took a lot away from that,” Alex added.

“Everyone took away an important lesson about giving rather than always taking, about asking the right questions, and doing everything possible to make sure that answers are coming from diverse voices when we’re talking about sustainability and climate action,” Ms. Bauer concluded. “We also had a lively discussion about ways to ensure greater accountability both in our personal lives and in our organizations.”

With the success of this first STEM and Environmental Sustainability conference, organizers are considering holding another event during the school year, to reach even more FIRST teams.

Lori Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Manitoulin Expositor