In October of 2018, BrainReach North sent volunteers up to a Cree community in the Eeyou Istchee on James Bay called Chisasibi, home to 4500 people. BrainReach North, an organization run by Neuroscience graduate students at McGill University, focuses on science outreach aimed at northern Indigenous communities in Quebec. Volunteers work to get kids excited about science and to inspire them to pursue their passion for problem solving and learning about the natural world. Over three days, volunteers taught ~200 students at Waapinichikush Elementary School. These lessons were given to students in grades 3 to 6, and focused on topics such as why animal brains have different shapes and sizes, how our brains can trick us into seeing things that are not there, and how our attention works.
We started our journey on the morning of October 29th by flying from Montreal to Chisasibi. We stopped at 3 or 4 other airports along the way to drop off and pick up more people, and to stretch our legs! Unfortunately, given how busy the flights were that day, our lab equipment and activity materials got left behind (e.g., things such as microscopes and plastic brain models). Luckily, since BrainReach North is designed to work in communities that may not have access to these kinds of materials, we were able to improvise and use the school’s smart boards. Almost immediately after landing, we were whisked away to the school by Sonam Dekhang, the head teacher at Waapinichikush Elementary School, to start our first lessons. Sonam helped us organize this trip and acted as our town guide - she even cooked dinner for us!
John taught classes in French, while Ana taught students in the English classrooms. In Chisasibi, children study in Cree until Grade 3 when classes switch to either French or English. We also met with teachers to introduce the educational resources that we have been developing to make neuroscience accessible and engaging for students.
After our lessons, Sonam gave us a tour of the town to see the sights. We went out to see the stunning bay at sunset, visited the Great River (from which Chisasibi gets its name), and spent some time in a mitchuap (a traditional shelter). We also visited the Chisasibi Heritage and Cultural Centre to learn about the town’s history. Chisasibi as it exists now was built in the early 1980s. After hydroelectric dams were constructed in the area, the old location of the town began to dwindle. We saw video footage of buildings being physically moved by boat from the old location to where Chisasibi sits today.
The last day of our visit was Halloween which gave us the opportunity to see the amazing decorations students made to celebrate; students were dressed in creative costumes and had an amazing pumpkin decorating contest!
It was a pleasure to meet so many curious students and dedicated teachers. A special thank you to the school’s principal and vice-principal, as well as to Sonam Dekhang who helped organize the trip and hosted us during our visit. Thank you, Waapinichikush School; we hope to visit again in the future!
Written by Ana & John
Edited by Stephanie
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