A Bioengineering Student Explains Why STEM Education is So Important

“I’ve come to the conclusion that education is the basis of all progress and quality of life, and consider it my duty as a First World citizen to share any knowledge I gain with those who may need it.”

STEM workshop in North PolePhoto: Courtesy of Veronika Cencen

Last February, I worked as a volunteer hosting STEM workshops (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for Inuit youth up near the North Pole. To understand how this came about, I have to provide a little background about myself.

Originally from Slovenia, my family and I had travelled a lot, as my dad is a diplomat. The dynamic lifestyle, combined with a love of learning, led me to pursue opportunities where I could share my achievements and good fortune in a productive and practical way—hopefully to the benefit of the community. I’ve come to the conclusion that education is the basis of all progress and quality of life, and consider it my duty as a First World citizen to share any knowledge I gain with those who may need it—sometimes even as a tool for survival.

In the past, I’ve taught gymnastics at an international school, English in a Mongolian village, physics as a lab teaching assistant, and STEM to local community schools—all while travelling and training as a national team gymnast, and pursuing an advanced education in bioengineering.

I discovered the volunteer group, Let’s Talk Science (LTS), here in Ottawa. It’s an amazing outreach program created to inspire Canadian youth to incorporate science and technology into their careers, leisure and everyday tasks. It provided an ideal combination of my academic focus, desire to help others and amazing nationwide opportunities for collaboration and exchange.

Eventually, the diplomatic community began to notice LTS and its pursuits. Having read a few of my articles and reading up on the goals of LTS, the Heads of Missions’ Spouses Association (HOMSA) decided that last year, their charity collection would be directed to our initiative to support education in remote Indigenous communities. Because our charity auction collected a record number of donations, combined with my participation in so many diverse LTS activities, I was invited to join a national LTS employee to visit and teach at community and school events in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

I had joined other remote trips in the past, but this would be the furthest north I had been to date! Thankfully, I was given several months notice to prepare my easily “freezable” self for the trip. My luggage was composed mostly of clothing and food, which left little room for other things. But I did manage to pack my mandatory running shoes and skipping rope, my diary and some books. (Check out these hilarious math jokes, puns and one-liners.)

Our group spent a week in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, visiting the local elementary and high school, as well as the community centre. We put on workshops that provided hands-on science and engineering-inspired activities for the participants. It was clear that many of the students had never had any practical experience before, and were delighted by some of the demonstrations and information. I had a teacher catch me at the end of the presentation to tell me how impressed she was that we managed to convince one exceptionally shy teen to participate. Sometimes it’s not even the novelty of the information presented that makes the greatest impact, but the method of sharing it. We taught a variety of ages, since the topics—which included the exploration of Mars, critical-thinking science-based challenges, and the science of stress—were highly relevant to all age groups. In one instance, a preteen boy even cried (in a positive, emotional way) during the meditation session.

On our fifth day there, we had a bit of a heat wave—temps rose to -30°C!—so I decided to take the opportunity to explore a little and convinced my friend, Priscilla Nordstrom, to join me on a grueling hike to see Maud—a Norwegian ship lodged in the frozen Arctic beach. Our bodies ached with frostbite, my phone didn’t wake up for a day and we were late for dinner, but it was worth it! (Discover the fascinating facts behind the mystery of pi.)

The week I spent in Canada’s North teaching Inuit youth, coupled with the opportunity to visit this incredible part of our country with its infinite ice roads, wonderful local events and unique artistic creations, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Originally Published in Our Canada