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University of Calgary hosts Indigenous girls from Northwest Territories in STEM camp

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It's a long way from home but eight girls between the ages of 11 and 15 travelled from the Northwest Territories to the University of Calgary for an all-expenses-paid STEM Camp.

They are from Yellowknife, Hay River, Behchoko and Deline.

Each had to apply and provide a reference letter to De Beers Canada, the camp's sponsor.

Pamela Ellemers is the principal mineral resource manager and made the trip with the girls.

Ellemers says this is the fourth STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) camp it has hosted for Indigenous girls but the first at the U of C.

"We've invited girls to come and be with us and our partners at the University of Calgary, to have the university experience," she said.

"They're staying in residence, they're eating at the dorms and they're with their caregivers, so the girls get the experience of university campus life and so do their caregivers."

The initiative is part of De Beers' "Building Forever" focus, which includes protecting the natural world, leading ethical practices across industry, partnering for thriving communities and accelerating equal opportunity.

Ellemers says De Beers wants to achieve these goals by 2030.

"We have a mine in the Northwest Territories called Gahcho Kue mine and we want to have a positive impact on the communities around us," she said.

"What we're trying to do is encourage more girls into STEM disciplines, so we can diversify our industry."

Kristin Baetz, dean of science, says this is a great opportunity for the girls at camp to see what's possible beyond grade school.

"The University of Calgary is really committed to ensuring everybody in society has access to science education and it's really important for Indigenous students to have access to amazing science opportunities," she said.

"Maybe something today is going to spark their interest for life. Maybe they'll come here in two years and be a physicist, a computer scientist or go into engineering."

Annie Quinney, senior instructor at the faculty of science, says this is the right age group to target for STEM camp.

"If we want to keep girls in STEM, we really need to start building on those strong STEM identities and it's really important to start young," said Quinney.

"What we know about kids is that they are born scientists, they are inherently curious and they explore and experiment in their world but we also know that by the time they're reaching ages 11 to 15, somewhere in that window, that curiosity naturally drops off for a lot of girls."

Deanna Burgart, teaching chair focused on weaving Indigenous knowledge and perspectives into engineering at the university, says society needs more Indigenous girls in STEM careers.

"I'm Cree and Dene, my family's from Treaty 8 territory and I'm passionate about weaving Indigenous knowledge, reciprocity, like beliefs and values around reciprocity, with Mother Earth," she said.

"I firmly believe that we need to show Indigenous youth that our people have been scientists and engineers since time immemorial, that they belong in STEM even though we're drastically underrepresented right now, like less than one per cent."

Lauren Tordiff is 13 years old and has never been to Calgary before.

She's not sure where she'll end up in post-secondary school but is impressed by the city and campus life.

"It's pretty cool because we're learning a lot," she said.

"We went to the (Rothney Astrophysical Observatory) yesterday and I learned about, like Jupiter and the moon and stuff. It's crazy."

The students were focused on "circuit art" for a morning class on Wednesday and had a number of supplies to help them create something interesting that included a power source and LED light.

Angie Football, 13, says she wasn't quite sure what she was building.

"I'm trying to make stars, make it glow in the back to light up," she said.

"I'm just going to cut a little star out but it's small and I'm thinking this isn't going to be big enough for it to go behind it. You put it behind and it's a little dot."

Baetz knows many of the young students aren't sure if they want to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or math but is hopeful.

"It's through these fun activities that people really learn. It's science in action," she said.

You can learn more about the De Beers "Building Forever" program at debeersgroup.com/sustainability-and-ethics/building-forever-2030-goals.

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