Student takes STEM north

Posted on Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Children wearing goggles, sitting around a woman holding up chemical test strips.

Özel conducts a health-related workshop with children in Whale Cove. Photo courtesy of Actua.

By Brandon Gillet

Aybüke Özel has come a long way from her native Turkey on her journey to bring science to the masses, especially youth. The fourth-year civil engineering student spent part of the summer in Nunavut, infusing workshops for Inuit children with her passion for the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“I like to teach and inspire kids,” Özel said. “It’s fun working with children because when they say they like you, they actually mean it!”

Özel’s summer job was with the Actua Foundation, which aims to reach young Canadians with STEM education, sending enthusiastic science and tech instructors to remote parts of the country, including Indigenous communities. Özel worked at several Nunavut locations.

“I gave workshops for kids in kindergarten all the way up to Grade 12,” Özel said. “This involved lots of tech and sometimes coding, with high school students learning more advanced applications.”

Relevant and hands on

Rather than having children just learn to depend on technology, Actua wants them to create it. As well, Actua instructors make the connections between what they’re teaching and its importance to a community. For example, a weather station workshop will cover Arctic environmental issues.

Girl smiling, wearing an Actua T-shirt

Aybüke Özel. Photo courtesy of Actua

Actua participants explore many science-related fields, from nursing and health sciences to environmental sciences, all hands on. Özel recalls: “Kids got to go out and explore Arctic flora and then experiment with making toothpaste, so we linked the activity to health and dentistry. Instead of us just teaching, we try to make them the owners of the projects."

Last summer, Özel worked as an instructor with the Adventures in Engineering and Science summer camp at uOttawa, which operates with support from Actua.

As part of the application process to work with Actua itself this year, she had to present a lesson — and really stood out when she started dancing ballet.

“I had five minutes,” she said. “I danced for three of them, then explained the science behind classical dance.”

From Turkey to uOttawa

Born in Istanbul, Özel came to Canada in her last year of high school on an international exchange. She had attended a French school in Turkey, so she had no trouble graduating from a high school in Trois-Rivières. She started in management at uOttawa before deciding it wasn’t for her and switching to civil engineering, which she is studying in French.

After this year, she hopes to study sustainable design and green materials at the graduate level, continue volunteering with Engineers Without Borders and work toward permanent residency in Canada.

When Özel’s students are interested in learning more at the end of a session, she knows she has made an impression.

“We show them that science doesn’t come with us, for us to show them — but science is already there, and it’s alive,” she said.

“It’s wonderful when they are still energetic about it, and they get their friends to join. As Actua puts it, they ‘make friends with science.’”

Children running around an open area with a few houses, a lake and an older guide in the background.

In Baker Lake, Özel used games like tag to teach children about the spread of infections. Photo courtesy of Actua.

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