“…young people aren't just the leaders of tomorrow, they're the leaders of today. Their voices matter … the things they do now can have a tremendous impact to change the world, right now.”
- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
I have heard the young voices of STEM in Canada and their words are clear and impressive. Recently, Actua facilitated a roundtable event at Shaw Communications’ Corporate office in Ottawa to help inform the federal government on why youth and Canada’s diverse population must be at the centre of the government’s new Innovation Agenda. The purpose of the event was to provide Canada’s Minister of Science, The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, and Mr. Greg Fergus, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, with an opportunity to hear directly from a diverse group of youth.
Actua has long advocated that Canada cannot afford to overlook any segment of our population, especially Indigenous Canadians and women. We also believe that the government simply cannot advance a comprehensive Innovation Agenda without incorporating Canada’s youth voice.
This event was also intended to give these young people and industry leaders from Google, Shaw Communications and Shopify, Queen’s University, The Brookfield Institute, SHAD, SSHRC, ICTC, and other government representatives, an opportunity to engage and learn from each other.
The morning began with a buzz of great excitement as the youth entered the beautiful venue overlooking Parliament Hill and the upcoming, unique opportunity to meet with the Minister and industry leaders from cutting edge companies. Nervous energy was palpable but once the Minister and Mr. Fergus were seated and began engaging with the students, conversation flowed easily and the room seemed to glow with mutual delight.
The students revealed dreams of using their passion for STEM to build future careers in areas such as space exploration, overseas and robotic medicine, healthcare delivery, teaching, infrastructure, human rights, communications business, and the environment. All twelve shared a common desire to use STEM as a tool for ending inequality and improving the planet.
As comfort levels increased, the young people began revealing some of the challenges they face. Actua is aware of these challenges but hearing personal testimonies served to deepen the conversation and illustrate just how real these struggles are for Canadian youth. Several of the young women described the sexism that comes both from within STEM related studies and from the outside world: “There are only two girls in my computer science class and I get told by some boys that I am only there to fill a quota.” Others agreed that there is a stigma attached to girls with STEM related goals: “Most girls go into business.”
Systemic racism is another barrier encountered by many of these youth. “There are still racial stereotypes associated with STEM that can make you feel like you don't belong. If science doesn't accept everyone, what good is it?”
There was agreement among the group that diverse, visible role models are key in making change: “When I see people like me doing what I love, I feel inspired. It makes me certain I can do the same.” They reiterated that opportunities to engage with diverse mentors are very scarce.
The youth also shared that economic struggles can inhibit the freedom of risk taking required for discovery and innovation. “If I know that I need a 97% average to get a scholarship, there is no way I will take on any project that could lower my average even though I know it would be a valuable learning experience.” High school guidance counselor, Kelly Carlson, sees this all the time: “University acceptance averages are so high that parents do not want their children to take a course outside their comfort zone, or engage in any activities that do not contribute to this end goal.”
This finding further demonstrates why it is critical that the government increase funding to evidence based STEM outreach programs that can provide experiences where youth can apply the facts they are learning in school in an environment free from pressure and where failure is celebrated as a critical part of innovation.
Before the session ended, a visibly moved Minister Duncan provided the group with some motivating words: “Each of you have stellar careers ahead of you. Take every opportunity you are offered because you never know where it might lead. When someone tells you something is impossible, that is a dare. You have the world by the tail and it is all yours. I am in awe of you.”
Following the roundtable, the group moved to an adjacent room to take part in a lively, fast-paced rotating exchange of ideas with leading Canadian industry leaders. One of my favorite moments was watching the eyes of the youth light up when these leaders announced that they were attending to listen and learn from the students! Having an opportunity to meet with leaders was treated like such a privilege by this eager group and their gratitude overflowed: “Today was unreal! I have never been in a room with such influential people. I am leaving here inspired to learn and try new things.”
Each young guest later expressed how much they enjoyed listening to the individual goals, plans and challenges of their peer group and also how being surrounded by those with similar ambitions felt both comforting and invigorating. Every single one of them, when interviewed privately, emphatically insisted that equality and diversity are essential to innovation and the future of STEM in Canada.
Actua was so inspired by these young leaders that we invited them to join a newly formed Actua Youth Advisory Council. The Council will meet monthly to continue these discussions and to ensure that Actua continues to keep its finger on the pulse of what youth need and want from STEM. I wanted to share more of what these brilliant minds and open hearts had to tell us and I would like to introduce them to you below.
There is such a stigma attached to STEM. People think that you won’t be able to participate unless you are a genius. I feel that the key to success in STEM is being exposed to it early in life. STEM is such a great way for kids to find out what they are capable of!
To me innovation means to think beyond what is in front of you. My goal is to use my STEM education to improve life and solve accessibility issues for others back home in Nunavut. My teachers inspire me every day with their passion for education and teaching and being here today was amazing. It was awesome to share and listen to others speak about their plans to tackle issues important to Canadians and the world. I believe in diversity and that it can open doors and windows to a new reality that is better for everyone.
I want girls to know that they can be scientists too. If science isn’t for everyone then science isn’t for me! I want to live in world where we can take what we know and the resources we have to make the world better and safer. It would be my dream for everyone to be able to pursue his or her passion without worrying about the need to make money. If we were all able to do what we love, I am sure amazing discoveries would be made.
I would love to see the end of inequality of every kind. In order for everyone’s strengths to emerge, we need to exist on an equal playing field. For true innovation to occur, a space must be created where ideas can flow without inhibition. Where there is freedom to be creative and take a risk.
I came here today because I like to be around people who are inspired to make change. I think telling young women that they will have to work twice as hard as men to get ahead only discourages them. We need to show and tell girls at a young age that they can do whatever they want. Watching my mother work so hard and make sacrifices has inspired me so much. I know that her efforts will serve to open more doors for me and other women in the future.
I first became excited about science while watching the news with my parents. I love the idea of taking things from the past, that we once thought were new, and making them better. I would love to live in a peaceful world with equality and access to education for everyone.
People fear science because they think it is too hard or that it doesn’t fit with arts or other classes. We need to find a way to bring STEM to students in a place where they are comfortable and get them interested. This year I created a dance project using math and physics. My group was a little worried at first but soon began to love it.
I would love to help improve infrastructure around the world to give people a better life. Diversity is so important to innovation. This summer I worked on a food security project through SHAD. It made me realize how valuable it is to gather minds from all across the country when solving problems because we all look at things from a different perspective.
My goal is to be a doctor overseas and to run an orphanage. If I could I would figure out a way to provide healthcare and clean water to everyone. Diversity is so important in STEM because it means that we will have different perspectives and more minds to solve the world’s problems. It was so interesting hearing about the different scientific passions of others today and what we hope to accomplish with our lives.
If I could I would give everyone a voice. I believe that failure in STEM is something people should strive for because it leads to better discoveries.
I am inspired by communication and would love to study just how the world became so unequal in the first place! As the co-president of my high school, I take every opportunity to help my school become more diverse. We have a lot of STEM clubs at school and I am attending today to learn more about how we can encourage innovation and change.
Diversity is so important. Seeing other black girls in science makes me feel like I belong there. I am so grateful to Actua and programs that will allow us to fulfill our dreams.
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