Nuu-chah-nulth kids get hand-on with science and fun

By Shayne Morrow, July 10, 2015

Kaydan, right, breaks up after Ethan sets off a burst of Elephant's Toothpaste.

Photos by Shayne Morrow

Port Alberni — 

Tseshaht youth had fun making things blow up on the opening day of Science Camp, which began July 7 at Maht Mas Gym.

The Science Camp program for Nuu-chah-nulth youth is conducted in partnership between Uu-a-thluk and the University of Victoria’s Science Venture program.

A series of six camps, each four to five days long, will be held in Nuu-chah-nulth communities across the Island, according to NTC Capacity Building Coordinator Michelle Colyn.

The program looks at marine/environmental science and conservation, medicine/health, chemistry and biology, in a well-tested format.

“This is the tenth year it has been run,” Colyn said.

The NTC has a stated goal to increase the number of Nuu-chah-nulth people in the scientific professions. To that end, the Science Camp program provides hands-on learning experiences for Nuu-chah-nulth, ages eight to 12, in hopes of inspiring some of the participants to pursue a scientific career path.

“For me, going to school, science was one of the more intimidating fields. Our goal is to make science seem not so scary,” Colyn said.

Part of the strategy is allowing the kids to create “minor explosions,” using mostly common household compounds and chemicals. As the day progressed, the young scientists would progress through Alka-Seltzer Rockets, a foamy effusion called Elephant’s Toothpaste and an even more explosive goop known as Borax Slime.

“It gets messy and they can see some big chemical reactions – but it’s safe,” Colyn said.

Other, less messy but no less interesting experiments include Catching a Rainbow, Cloud in a Bottle and making sunlight-activated designs with cyanotype paper.

Science Camp organizers also invite Nuu-chah-nulth community members to participate by sharing their traditional knowledge with these eager learners. Because whether it is traditional food gathering and preparation, craft making or boat building, it all comes down to science – marine biology, botany, chemistry and engineering, etc. – at the ground level.

Field trips are a key element in the camps, and the Ucluelet Aquarium is a favorite stop. This year, however, for the first time, the Tseshaht camp itinerary included a day trip to Benson Island, with transport courtesy of the Tseshaht Beachkeepers and Fisheries crews.

That’s familiar territory for Tseshaht Sport and Recreation coordinator Tyrone Marshall, whose background is guiding kayak tours in Clayoquot Sound and the Broken Island Group. He now conducts regular youth trips to the Broken Group, with an emphasis on teaching traditional – and scientific – skills, and is playing a key role in the Tseshaht Science Camp.

“When I take kids out there, I ask them to think about how, 150 or 200 years ago, this is how we got our groceries,” he said.

For Indigenous peoples, survival is all about environmental science.

“What we want these kids to learn is that science is all around us; it’s in everything we do,” said Science Venture instructor Jessica Steele. “We love it when kids say, ‘I thought science was supposed to be dull.’”

Tseshaht member Cole Leischman-Gomez graduated from Alberni District Secondary School in 2014 and is now attending the School For Criminal Justice at Camosun College in Victoria. Leischman-Gomez volunteered to help with the Tseshaht camp, both to serve as a mentor for youth as well as getting some time out on the water with the Fisheries team.

The Criminal Justice training opens up a number of career opportunities, he explained. At this stage, he is considering a number of options.

“Right now, it’s between becoming a fisheries enforcement officer or becoming a regular police officer. My goal there would be to become an investigator. This is something I’ve thought about since I was quite young,” Leischman-Gomez said.

Part of the camp itinerary also includes floor games. Between putting together explosive reactions and gooey concoctions, participants also take part in some physical activities. On Tuesday afternoon, Steele led the children through a game of Salmon, Bear, Mosquito.

In this game, opposing groups of children select which animal they will portray, then meet in the middle of the gym in what becomes a game of catch-and-chase with a focus on the circle of life.

“The Bear eats the Salmon, the Salmon eats the Mosquito, the Mosquito eats the Bear.”

“It’s important to get some physical activity in, because children can get pretty restless if they sit too long,” Steele said.

While the experiments are fun and often dramatic, the emphasis is on safety and step-by-step scientific protocol – the sort of procedures they will have to follow if they pursue a career in the sciences.

In the Elephant’s Toothpaste experiment, the children are divided into groups of five and assigned individual numbers. The goal is to mix yeast, water, dish liquid and 3% hydrogen peroxide to make a colorful expanding foam.

“Remember: no touching anything I say ‘don’t touch’ and no eating anything I say ‘don’t eat,’” Science Venture instructor Laurel Christie said.

Under Christie’s direction, the children in each group patiently work through each step as instructed, and laughter erupts as five graduated cylinders simultaneously erupt with the pink goop.

Later (outdoors), Steele conducts a slightly more risky demonstration with somewhat harsher chemicals, including 30% hydrogen peroxide, in a glass beaker. This time, the foam bursts over two metres into the air while the children watch from a safe distance.

“Don’t try this at home,” Steele warned.

On Tuesday, the group travelled by road to Toquart Bay, where they met the Beachkeepers and Fisheries.

Toquaht First Nation had given permission to use their marina for the day, Colyn said. They went to Nettle Island first, explored some tide pools and learned about intertidal species. Then the Beachkeepers will shuttled the group to Benson Island, where there was cultural interpretation.

The next Science Camp, for Ucluelet First Nation, takes place from July 13 through 17 at the Hitacu Youth Centre. Colyn said there is no field trip planned.

The camp moves to Ahousaht for July 20 through 24 at T-Bird Hall. Again, no field trip is planned, but in the remote communities, you’re already right out in the field and it’s easy to set up activities, Colyn noted.

It’s back to Port Alberni on July 27 through 31, at the Hupacasath House of Gathering. This event is for Hupacasath and Uchucklesaht youth and a field trip to Ucluelet Aquarium has been tentatively penciled in.

On Aug. 17 through 21, it’s Mowachaht/Muchalaht at the House of Unity, with the final camp set to take place Aug. 24 through 27 at Ditidaht Community School.

Colyn said children will be able to take part in the same fun and messy experiments in all of the camps, as well as activities geared to their individual communities. Care is taken is to keep the program fresh, she said.

“The Science Venture staff go through curriculum workshops each year, so they’re always updating the curriculum. They put together a package of science activities. I usually meet with them in April and we go over any themes we want to see and what kind of activities might be fun. Then I get a chance to meet with the new Science Venture staff to talk about our partnership with them.”