Inspiring Indigenous whiz kids

Taking science and hope to Cross Lake

Danielle Taillon and Justine Boudreau share their passion for engineering with a struggling First Nations community, using a 3D printer and “maker kits” to spark children’s dreams.

The shattering news of six young lives lost to suicide on the Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Cross Lake, Manitoba, struck close to home for Danielle Taillon.

“Depression is something that has run in my family,” Taillon says. The fourth-year uOttawa mechanical engineering student has also known people who have died by suicide.

When a First Nations artist asked Taillon and one of her professors if they could find a project to occupy and inspire Pimicikamak youth, Taillon was quick to act. She realized the Cross Lake children lacked organized recreational activities, like the science and engineering summer camps uOttawa offers. So she and friend Justine Boudreau decided to bring science and fun to Cross Lake.

In July, the two engineering students flew to Winnipeg, picked up a 3D printer and other supplies, and drove the eight hours north to Cross Lake. They then ran a week-long camp for 40 kids, aged five to 16, introducing them to computer programming, 3D printing and entrepreneurship.

From designing and printing toys, jewellery and small robots to creating their own video games and model houses, Taillon and Boudreau showed the children how to develop an idea from concept to delivery. Their campers learned how to use the 3D printer and to plan, build and market their creations. They applied math and science skills that had previously seemed irrelevant.

The campers also started to internalize the idea that these skills could open new possibilities. After designing a model house complete with flowerbeds and a Canadian flag, one 13-year-old girl began to believe, for the first time, that she too could become an engineer.

“I got the feeling those careers were not something she had ever thought about before, because she’s having a hard time keeping up in school,” Taillon says.

Taillon realizes a week-long summer camp alone will not solve the deep social problems limiting opportunities for young people in Cross Lake. But she hopes she has planted a seed, offering the community positive activities children can continue, with the help of the 3D printer she left there.

“If you give children activities, it’s easier for them to learn, and not get into trouble or into a bad state of mind,” she says.

Inspiring First Nations youth to reach for careers in science and engineering is also the motivation behind MakerSpace Build Night, a second project Taillon and Boudreau are undertaking.

In the fall of 2016, they began shipping “maker kits” to the Whitefish River First Nation near Manitoulin Island. The kits contain all the materials students need to create a programmable stuffed animal with eyes that light up and flash. The kits, which include a teachers’ guide, will harness the students’ creativity as they learn to program, make electrical circuits and sew their animals.

The Whitefish River First Nation will be paired with St. Gabriel School in Ottawa, where students will receive the same kits. Taillon plans to connect the two groups of students so they can chat online about their progress and cheer on each other’s successes.

Your support for MakerSpace projects like this will help expose more Indigenous youth to the infinite possibilities that careers in science and engineering could open to them. Please donate now.

In 2015, the University of Ottawa launched a $400 million fundraising campaign. Defy the Conventional: The Campaign for uOttawa is raising funds to support priorities in every faculty. The campaign will help uOttawa recruit and retain top talent and enrich the student experience. Donations will also support innovative capital projects.

A young woman works at a counter packing items into a small box, while another young woman, holding two small boxes, looks on.

Justine Boudreau assembles a maker kit.

Two women look at the contents of two small boxes, while another woman looks on.

Danielle Taillon shows Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne the contents of a kit.

Faculty of Engineering Makerspace Fund

Donors of $500 or more are entered into the Tabaret Society

The Faculty of Engineering MakerSpace is a free, collaborative space where people can come together to invent, play, design and build.

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