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'Our ancestors were scientists': How an Anishnaabe chemist injects elder knowledge into STEM classes


Dawn Pratt has loved science ever since the fourth grade when she became fascinated with a chemistry set her parents gave her.

But Pratt, a chemist from the Muscowpetung First Nation in Saskatchewan, said, “there is a big gap” between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous who go on to have careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Although Indigenous people make up about 5 per cent of the country’s total population, they only make up two per cent of all of those working STEM jobs in Canada, according to the Ottawa think tank Conference Board of Canada.

To turn this trend around, Pratt says Indigenous students need to be better shown how science directly relates to their own lives. So, the veteran science educator has spent the past year “indigenizing” scientific concepts and infusing Indigenous culture lesson plans for students ranging from elementary school to post-secondary.

For example, she uses sealskin mitts to explore the physics of heat and waterproof materials; and turns to traditional hide-tanning techniques to explore certain chemical reactions.

“What it means to ‘indigenize,’ to me, is bringing in our elder’s knowledge and bringing in the language… and finding those intersections of where our Indigenous knowledge and the science curriculum intersect,” Pratt, who has a Master’s in Chemistry from the University of Saskatchewan, told in a video interview.

In 2020, she created Askenootow STEM Enterprise Inc. -- a consulting agency that creates everything from whole curriculums to day-long workshops intended to encourage Indigenous youth to learn more about STEM.

The agency’s name takes after her great-great-great-grandfather and the 19th-century Cree word meaning “worker of the Earth.”

The idea was inspired by people reaching out to Pratt over the years, for everything from improving simple lessons to advice on how to indigenize an exhibit at a science centre. So, through Askenootow work and its accompanying lesson blogs, she hopes to expand her reach across the country.

Although Pratt hasn't been able to physically be in classrooms as much as she’d like due to the pandemic, she has been advising parents, Indigenous organizations, educational institutes, and teachers at colleges and universities on how to “indigenize science courses.”

And Pratt is hoping schools or universities might hold outdoor science camps for children this summer, when she hopes to have the chance to hold in-person workshops for young learners.


Pratt vehemently opposes the stereotype that Indigenous people are somehow ill-suited for math and science, and points out that First Nations, Metis and Inuit people have been incorporating scientific ideas in their lives for thousands of years.

“In Saskatchewan, we have such a harsh winter that involves a lot of science to survive,” she said, noting that early settlers learned a great deal from the Indigenous communities, including geography, agriculture, astronomy, which foods to eat and which plants to pick for medicine.

“I think it will empower the youth to see that our grandparents and our ancestors were scientists. They were pharmacists... climatologists, they were anatomists. They had to know how to harvest an animal and use all the parts of the buffalo.”

Pratt loves spending hours listening to elders and knowledge keepers because “when I listen to them talk to me, they sound like scientists.”

She already has a small roster of professionals, including doctors and engineers, who lend their time and expertise for lessons on physics, biology or medicine, but she’s hoping to enlist many more from across the country.

“There's a need for more Indigenous STEM mentors for up-and-coming mentees and prodigies that are going to school and might be considering taking STEM fields,” she said. “If you're more visible, you inspire them.”

“I would really like to bring partners like professionals in -- not just me -- because we want to get to know the whole world of Indigenous STEM professionals.” Top Stories

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