Eco-Kids gives inner city children new aspirations
A group of Winnipeg's inner city children are getting a special opportunity to learn about science at the University of Winnipeg, thanks to a unique education program called Eco-Kids on Campus.
For the students, most of them Aboriginal, it's their first opportunity to step onto a campus environment. Organizers are hoping that the innovative program, funded in part by Enbridge, will provide just the kind of step that will attract the children to a post-secondary education.
Enbridge’s Eco-Kids program helps Grade 5 and 6 students from the inner city see university as an exciting place to learn.
"The number one reason that young people do not attend post-secondary education is they have not been asked in a meaningful way," says Kevin Chief, coordinator of the university's Innovative Learning Centre, which oversees the program. "Eco-Kids helps to change that. It's a way to tap on their shoulder and say, you know, university can be for you."
Chief says the program is designed to help Grade 5 and 6 students from the inner city see university as an exciting place to learn. Children come to the university campus once a week for half a day for 10 weeks. They're engaged in hands-on science experiments, everything from DNA sampling, squid dissection, studying cells under a microscope and building mechanical machines. Science professors and university students take a strong role in leading activities and fostering a love of science in the children.
"We try to bring the wow factor to their learning experience," says Chief, in describing the program which he helped to co-found in 2007 along with University of Winnipeg president and vice-chancellor Lloyd Axworthy. " The professors just amaze the students. The kids get a chance to experience science in a fun, exciting way."
Between 25 and 40 students participate in the 10-week sessions, held three times a year. Each student is registered in the university's Opportunity Fund, which allows them to "earn and learn" tuition credits. For each school year they complete in Eco-Kids, they will have tuition credits "banked" in their name that can be used to attend the university.
With these benefits, it's not surprising that the program has quickly grown since its launch just four years ago.
In 2007 and 2008, Eco-Kids was piloted at Winnipeg's Strathcona Elementary School, an inner city school with a large Aboriginal population. Since then, five schools and about 250 students have participated in the program.
Eco-Kids on Campus
Through Eco-Kids on Campus, Winnipeg’s inner city children get the chance to learn about science at the University of Winnipeg.
Chief says the program is popular with students and teachers because it supports curriculum objectives and because organizers make it easy for students to come to campus.
"When they come to the campus, every barrier is removed," says Chief.
The program is free of charge to participants. A $25,000 grant by Enbridge, through the School Plus Program, is being used for transportation, nutrition for the children as well as supplies and equipment for the activities.
Besides removing barriers, the program also instils a newfound sense of their potential. When students first come to the campus, Chief says it's common for students to comment that "it's the biggest school they've ever seen." But they quickly learn to be comfortable in the campus environment. They get used to working alongside professors and university students. They're encouraged to see themselves on that campus in future years. They're also invited to other university events, including basketball games and open houses where they learn about different study programs and career paths. And when each session is completed, students celebrate their achievements in a graduation ceremony that brings together parents and teachers.
"It's an exciting experience for the students. It boosts their confidence. It gives them new ideas about their future. And they come away, encouraged to stay in school and stay focused on their studies," says Chief who has made breaking down barriers for young Aboriginal students part of his life work. Chief is Métis, grew up in the inner city and attended the university on a basketball scholarship.
"I've always thought that if university can break down barriers for an athlete, then we should be able to do the same for all students – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – that face socio-economic challenges. This program helps to do that. It's helping them to see the many benefits of being part of a university community."
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