How Can More Indigenous People Access STEM Careers?
About 4 per cent of Canadian adults are Indigenous. But less than 2 per cent of people working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) occupations are.
Improving Indigenous participation and leadership in major economic sectors, such as science, technology, and finance, is an important part of the reconciliation journey.
Strategies and content that better reflect Indigenous cultures and realities in science and math education may help more Indigenous learners access and succeed in STEM fields.
On behalf of the Future Skills Centre, The Conference Board of Canada is researching leading practices in STEM education for Indigenous learners in Canada.
During this multi-year project, the Conference Board’s Indigenous and Northern Communities research team will:
Examine the inequalities between Indigenous people and mainstream populations in STEM fields, including Indigenous perspectives on defining and measuring success.
Identify the strategies that reflect Indigenous cultures and realities in STEM education and employment that have the potential to reach the most learners.
Explore which strategies are contributing to effective outcomes for learners, particularly from the perspective of employers, Indigenous communities, and governments.
Develop recommendations for STEM educators and funders on best practices to bridge mainstream and Indigenous world views—inside and outside the science classroom.
Contributing to reconciliation
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) both call for educational reforms to ensure Indigenous peoples are accepted equitably in all fields, including STEM.
Under-representation is a problem
Examine Indigenous representation in select occupations.
Many organizations want to help
We found more than one hundred initiatives in Canada that encourage and support Indigenous learners in STEM fields. Governments, educational institutions, non-profits, and employers are all involved. Yet STEM programs for Indigenous learners are largely a patchwork across a broad and fragmented educational landscape.
Focusing on impact
Indigenous people have had ways of passing on their knowledge of nature for millennia. With the objective of increasing Indigenous representation in STEM fields, a variety of new approaches to STEM education have targeted Indigenous learners in Canada. Many of these try to bridge Western and Indigenous cultures.
We can group these STEM strategies into eight broad categories. Each strategy aligns with one of three periods in a learner’s life.
Strategies targeting elementary and secondary students
Curriculum reform in public schools
Since the TRC report was released in 2015, almost all public-school jurisdictions in Canada have reformed school curricula, including math and science, to better represent Indigenous world views.
Curriculum reform in Indigenous-controlled schools
Several Indigenous-controlled schools have developed science and math curricula that reflect their local culture and environment.
STEM outreach to Indigenous students
A wide variety of organizations across Canada provide culturally tailored STEM outreach programs designed to meet the needs of Indigenous primary and secondary students.
Strategies targeting learners in post-secondary education
Comprehensive support services for Indigenous students in post-secondary education
Comprehensive access programs in colleges and universities combine academic, personal, financial, and social supports that are culturally appropriate.
Indigenization of mainstream post-secondary education
Most post-secondary education institutions have plans to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and ways of learning into their research, policies, and programs.
Indigenous post-secondary education institutions promoting STEM fields
Indigenous-owned and -controlled post-secondary education institutes inherently incorporate culturally appropriate approaches in their STEM programs.
Strategies targeting STEM graduates
Associations of Indigenous STEM professionals
Indigenous STEM professionals support their colleagues in their careers and help young Indigenous students join the profession.
Employer recruitment and retention initiatives
Canadian employers that want more Indigenous employees may offer scholarships, pre-employment training, technology support, a job on graduation, and an inclusive work environment.
Success means different things to different people
Success means more than increasing the number of Indigenous individuals working in STEM fields. Some Indigenous leaders hope their STEM graduates will contribute to community empowerment, self-determination, and decolonization. But such outcomes are difficult to capture, measure, and attribute.
Here are some outcomes that could be measured:
Successfully moving from elementary to middle school, middle to high school, high school to college or university, and undergraduate to graduate school.
Gaining acceptance into STEM programs in college, polytechnic, university, or an apprenticeship.
Staying in STEM subjects in school, college, or university.
Graduating with the desired qualifications in STEM fields.
Securing a job in a STEM field, keeping the job, and getting promoted.
- Education is a provincial responsibility, but the federal government has fiscal responsibility for Indigenous education. Indigenous STEM learning takes place in diverse programs in 13 provinces and territories, among populations of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit. This leaves Indigenous education in a grey area and makes it difficult to generalize across the country.
- Few initiatives reach large numbers of learners. For example, some culturally appropriate learning environments, such as learning on the land, do not lend themselves to mass reproduction.
- Short-term success doesn’t mean long-term sustainability. Securing ongoing funding and retaining key talent is proving difficult.
- Efforts may be diluted. This includes organizations that attempt a series of smaller initiatives at many education levels rather than concentrating on one level at a time.
- Many initiatives depend on access to broadband Internet and related information technologies. This is a major challenge as Internet access continues to be poor in many Northern and remote communities.
- Parents are often not included. And yet parents have a big influence on the decisions made about their children’s education.
Join the discussion
We want to hear your perspective. Do you have a favourite STEM initiative?
For a deeper look, read the research:
Any omissions in fact or interpretation remain the sole responsibility of The Conference Board of Canada. The findings do not necessarily reflect the views of the Future Skills Centre, its funder, or its partners.