Traditional Elders in Post-Secondary STEM Education

By Maria Pontes Ferreira, Betty McKenna and Fidji Gendron.

Published by The International Journal of Health, Wellness and Society

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Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: April 11, 2014 Free Download

Native/Aboriginal students are underrepresented in Western science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), due in part to perceived cultural irrelevance. Yet many Native people continue to engage in Indigenous science, such as through traditional medicine and food systems. Recently it was shown that Aboriginal university students are significant users of natural health products (NHP) and learn about NHP from Elders. Thus, in post-secondary educational settings, the presence of Elders may positively impact Native students’ interest in science-related topics. At the First Nations University of Canada, partnering of STEM-trained faculty with Elders occurs in community-based research and education endeavours. This paper highlights these efforts, which include a traditional medicine room teaching laboratory. Medicine walks with Elders have been videotaped and used in live and online classes. Workshops have led to the development and publication of traditional foods and medicine booklets. A prairie medicine wheel garden on campus serves to reinforce Aboriginal values in the appreciation of native prairie plants. An evidence-based ethnomedicine course engages STEM-trained PhDs and Indigenous science Elders as co-educators in the online environment. In these applications, Elders share cultural knowledge to ensure relevance to Natives and to positively impact student interest in science. Future directions include a pedagogical experiment to determine the impact of Elders as educators upon post-secondary student interest in STEM. This ongoing work should facilitate a discourse regarding Aboriginal science education, and illuminates downstream policy implications regarding science literacy, Native retention in science, Indigenous science, and the role of Elders in post-secondary STEM education.

Keywords: Aboriginal, Community-based Participatory Research, Indigenous Science, Native American, Pedagogy, STEM

The International Journal of Health, Wellness and Society, Volume 3, Issue 4, November 2014, pp.1-11. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: April 11, 2014 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 403.544KB)).

Dr. Maria Pontes Ferreira

Assistant Professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Science, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, USA

Dr. Ferreira is an assistant professor of nutrition science at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI, USA. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of Kansas in the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program. She has a longstanding interest in natural products for health and performance. In her spare time, she enjoys learning about native plants of the Great Lakes region at her home in Windsor, Ontario.

Betty McKenna

Resident Elder, First Nations University of Canada, Regina, SK, Canada

Elder Betty McKenna is from the Anishinabe First Nation, Shoal River Band, and is the Elder in residence at the First Nations University of Canada, Regina, SK. She is knowledgeable about many traditional teachings she learned from her grandmother and from other Elders. Revitalization of indigenous food and medicine systems is important to her. She gives workshops on traditional and spiritual teachings. Topics include the harvesting, storing, and preparing of foods from the prairie, such as tisanes made from rose hips, nettle, mint, prairie seaweed, and sage. In 2012 she received the Saskatchewan Health Excellence Award in the “Health of a Population” category.

Dr. Fidji Gendron

Associate Professor, Biology, First Nations University of Canada, Regina, SK, Canada

Dr. Gendron is an associate professor of biology at the First Nations University of Canada. She is also an adjunct member of the biology faculty at the University of Regina. Her interests include plant ecology and traditional uses of native plants. She works in partnership with Elders and has several ongoing projects focusing on plant medicines. Her latest project is to use bioassays and chemical analyses to look at how prairie plants are used to treat skin infection. She is also in charge of the Shared Garden, a community garden where gardeners give some of their crop harvest to the First Nations University of Canada students.