June 24, 2020

Undergrad students spend summer working with Indigenous youth

PURE award recipient incorporates traditional Indigenous ways of knowing into scientific study of plants

As we continue to decipher new realities and adjustments during COVID-19, UCalgary student Savannah Poirier reminds us that even in difficult times, there is still a world to discover at our doorstep, filled with guidance and wisdom from the natural world.

Before the pandemic, Poirier, a Werklund School of Education student, was in the midst of developing lesson plans and compiling survey questions for Grade 7 and 8 students at Exshaw School in Exshaw, Alta. Poirier had planned to use her PURE (Program for Undergraduate Research Experience) Award to “investigate the use of non-traditional teaching methods and the inclusion of Indigenous ways of knowing as a way to increase student engagement in science.”

  • Photo above: Colourful Indigenous grassland blankets Nose Hill. Photo courtesy Savannah Poirier

However, despite the pandemic putting a wrench into classroom learning, the overall objective of Poirier’s project stayed the same: engage Indigenous youth in science through Indigenous ways of knowing. "Now it is about presenting the fact that Indigenous knowledge and science go together," she says.

Tessa Wolfleg is also a UCalgary student, assisting Poirier and grateful for the learning experience because it has given her a newfound appreciation for science and research.

The process of discovering plant life on Nose Hill is exciting and eye-opening. I did not know that science and research could look like this.

Wolfleg adds, “My favourite part is when we find a plant, and we are not exactly sure what it is, so we take our photo, upload the file at the end of day and then go investigate.”

Currently, Poirier and Wolfleg are reaching out to Elders and Indigenous Knowledge Keepers to bring traditional knowledge to urban Indigenous youth about the medicines and plant life that grows on Indigenous prairies, focusing primarily on the plant life at Nose Hill Park.

The horizon at Nose Hill aligns with a traditional Medicine Wheel

The horizon at Nose Hill aligns with a traditional Medicine Wheel

Courtesy of Savannah Poirier

Program for Undergraduate Research Experience

The PURE Award is an opportunity for undergrads to pursue a passion project over the summer, under the guidance of a leading UCalgary researcher. The PURE Award intends to enhance an undergraduate student’s skills and understanding of research methods, positioning them for future research endeavours.

Dr. Steven Michael Vamosi, PhD, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and academic director of the BioGeoscience Institute, is supporting Poirier, acting as a sounding board and mentor. “The value of scientific endeavours is to contribute and spread knowledge. I think the work Savannah and Tessa are doing with the support of PURE will contribute meaningfully to diversifying how we do science, opening space for engagement with Indigenous ways of knowing,” says Vamosi.

Poirier and Wolfleg spend the day collecting Knowledge Keeper audio and taking photos of the plant life at Nose Hill Park. The process of gathering stories from Knowledge Keepers and then compiling the photos will eventually tell a digital story about Nose Hill's Indigenous natural history.

During this pandemic, Poirier takes an interesting approach when offering tobacco to Elders and Knowledge Keepers, “I am running up to the door and leaving the tobacco on their doorstep. Sometimes it is on the doorstep till late at night when they decide to get it,” Poirier says.

A bike trail at Nose Hill connects nature with residential communities

A bike trail at Nose Hill connects nature with residential communities

Courtesy of Savannah Poirier

Sometimes, we forget about the natural landscape and the rich timeless knowledge it holds. The land is a knowledge keeper, so it is important for us to connect in a good way. Poirier and Wolfleg apply compassion, understanding, and motivation to learn about the ecosystem by forming good relations with traditional Knowledge Keepers and the land itself, inspiring not only Indigenous youth but all of us to go out and discover nature in a good way.

ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, ‘in a good way,’ UCalgary will move towards genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.