Pemmican and yogurt bring life to learning

Jun. 3, 2015

By Janet Harvey (originally appeared in Apple Magazine – Summer 2015)

A tapestry of a DNA cell enriches students learning experiences.

Protein, fruit and healthy fats are part of nutritious, healthy eating. They’re also ingredients in pemmican—a traditional food of many First Nations people of North America. Drs. Zenobia Ali and Virginie Martin use pemmican prepared by an elder to help aboriginal students learn how to analyze the nutritional value of foods. “They’re always a little surprised at how nutritious pemmican is,” Ali says. “They learn that their ancestors possessed a lot of wisdom, and that science is slowly catching up.”

Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions (AIHS) offers free, hands-on health science workshops to aboriginal students throughout Alberta on provincial curriculum topics. In Grade 1 workshops, program co-ordinators Ali and Martin use sparkles to teach about germs and the importance of hand-washing. In Grade 5, children isolate DNA from a banana and build their own DNA models. Grade 8 workshops include the pemmican food analysis as well as building cell models from yogurt, fruit and vegetables. Grade 11 and 12 students play “whodunit” with DNA fingerprinting.

Since 2008, students on the Tsuu T’ina, Blood (Kainai), Siksika, Morley and Paul First Nation reserves and in Calgary and Edmonton schools with large aboriginal populations have experienced AIHS’s learn-by-doing health science program. Martin is working to take the program to the Enoch Cree Nation and several schools in remote northern areas.

“The hands-on experience really enriches the students’ learning in a different way than the two-dimensional learning they get from reading a text,” says Wendy Ryan, a teacher on the Tsuu T’ina reserve southwest of Calgary for 14 years. “Plus, the kids really enjoy it.”

Ali says the challenge of bringing the workshops into classrooms is made worthwhile when the interest of even one child is sparked. Martin says some children in northern Alberta live in such remote areas that she feels she is giving them an opportunity to see a world they might otherwise not experience. “Our measure of success is always whether they invite us back,” says Ali. “So far, so good!”

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