STEM and TEK: Blazing a trail between 21st century and traditional ways of knowing

Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: May 2017 |

Implicit bias can only be addressed when made highly visible. Harmonizing STEM learning principles with Traditional Ecological Knowledge in the creation of a traditional foods and medicine trail has allowed learners to challenge implicit bias through raising our valuation of Aboriginal Worldviews and Perspectives.

On May 13, 2016 Vancouver Island North School District and Eagle View Elementary School hosted a District-wide applied skills learning challenge with the aim of raising our valuation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Weaving together the principles of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) learning with TEK, students were challenged to design a system for harvesting and enhancing one of four traditional food sources: salmon, eulachon, clams or traditional roots. This experience aimed to challenge the beliefs of students and educators by making implicit bias and the racism of low expectations visible. Data collected from the experience indicate that students and teachers developed an increased appreciation for Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives as a result of participating.

Raising our valuation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge was not enough, however. We wanted sustainable shifts in practice that would address the barriers in achieving success for all learners. As a result of what we learned from the STEM TEK Challenge, we took action and built bridges, literally and figuratively. This is the story of that action.

Interpretive Trail Building: The Why

As non-enrolling teachers, both Culture and Language Teacher Mr. Harold Nelson (Sisaxolas) and Project Based Learning teacher Mr. Sean Barfoot used outdoor classrooms and available space to work with all students. Mr. Nelson regularly used the edge of the forest adjacent to the school to teach learners about the ceremonial, medicinal and subsistence use of local plants. This space connects stories shared in the classroom with the land on which the Kwakwaka’wakw people have thrived for thousands of years. The sacred knowledge of place and the power of storytelling hold powerful influence for both learners and educators. Mr. Nelson regularly uses storytelling to connect daily learning experiences with sacred beliefs and rights that have been passed through families for generations.

Wishing to further enhance learning, Mr. Nelson recognized the opportunity to venture into the heart of the forest where other culturally significant plant species reside; however, existing trails through the forest would need improvements to allow safe passage to groups of students throughout the year. At the time, these trails were only used seasonally due to surface water and erosion. The desire to access this outdoor learning space year round necessitated the design and building of boardwalks. This necessity invited more opportunities for deep learning and so the trail became much more than a trail.

Our traditional foods and medicines interpretive trail (to receive a proper Kwakiutl name during blessing ceremony) came from the collaboration of Mr. Nelson and Mr. Barfoot. In partnership, these educators wove together significant elements of STEM, TEK, and Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives through the project of trail building in order to further address implicit bias and the racism of low expectations.


Applying STEM learning principles as an access point for TEK engages learners in deep and meaningful contemporary experiences that also provide extended contact with sacred knowledge keepers and the opportunity to practice perspective taking in authentic circumstances. In addition, learners across all roles of our school community had more occasion to connect to unique local history, context and sacred knowledge.

STEM learning enjoys a high-profile as we seek to increase the number of individuals with the skills necessary to be successful in an ever-changing economy. Western culture holds many STEM careers in high regard. By contrast, Western culture has long viewed as primitive and rudimentary. Colonial perspectives consistently de-value Indigenous peoples and their sacred knowledge despite TEK actually being rich and highly sophisticated in nature. TEK and sacred connections to the environment sustained large populations of First Nations peoples for thousands of years while also enhancing the stability and richness of prominent food sources in today’s global food market.

Interpretive Trail Building: The What

Designing, planning for and building an interpretive traditional foods and medicine trail embodies many big ideas in our re-designed curriculum. This interdisciplinary, cross-curricular, multi-grade approach works well in an elementary school context. To investigate this challenge, students explored a variety of ecological concepts: first in their classroom to prepare, then out on the land to seek tangible evidence to support or challenge their understandings. Examples of such concepts include erosion, stream flow, salmon reproduction life cycles and habitat, and traditional indigenous plant species. Much of this learning included partnerships with community organizations such as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Wild BC, Mount Waddington community foods initiative, the Quatse River salmon stewardship center, and a number of local businesses in addition to our school’s Parent Advisory Committee. Making use of the outdoor space challenged how we define “classroom”. Students enthusiastically discovered the evidence they sought and encountered many unexpected learning experiences along the way. With intention, this learning included Westernized content about the various relevant plants, animals, and geography alongside the experience of listening to sacred stories and songs about the land from a Kwakwaka’wakw perspective.

One particularly moving experience occurred when students asked Mr. Nelson how they should honour a cedar (k̓wa’x̱tłu) tree prior to stripping its bark. Mr. Nelson explained that the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples would sing to the forest and plants expressing their gratitude for all the resources available. Mr. Nelson demonstrated this practice by performing a song of thanks to the cedar tree whose bark was then used in a school ceremony.

Having taken advantage of seasonal patterns to explore the environment, learners turned their attention to theoretical design and the application of various STEM principles in project based learning. Working across the curriculum, students explored the raw framework for developing an interpretive trail and made key decisions about how best to accommodate varying stream flow levels while increasing access to the land. Throughout they aimed to preserve the integrity of the environment and avoid increased erosion.

Scaffolding the key elements of this project with individual lessons on applied design allowed students to move from theory to practice at every stage. Students from all classes and every grade level used their knowledge to design models for how best to build an interpretive trail that incorporated all the elements of their learning. These models were self and peer assessed based on co-developed criteria for strengths and needs before students voted on the final design. Important components of this project include designing and building boardwalks and creating interpretive trail signs.

After initial exploration and testing of various designs for boardwalks, students were provided with the raw materials and necessary hand tools to make their vision come to life. While being carefully supervised, older students mentored younger learners on the proper use of hand tools for the assembly and construction of all necessary boardwalks to complete the trail.

Having connected deeply with the sacred knowledge of traditional plants and medicines found on this interpretive trail, several student leaders designed interpretive signs for key locations throughout the trail. These signs feature information about the habitat and traditional uses of certain plant species. Of particular note is the inclusion of written Kwak’wala language for naming each of these species and QR codes that, when scanned, provide a direct link to the Royal British Columbia Museum’s First Voices exhibit. Use of this tool allows individuals to hear elders properly pronounce the names for each species in the Kwak’wala language, thereby further breathing life into the language.

These deep and extended learning experiences offered ongoing opportunity for learners to develop key knowledge and holistic understandings about the interconnectedness of place. Throughout this process students and educators continued to cultivate a greater appreciation of Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives. This trail building challenge created the space for us to confront our own implicit bias and address the racism of low expectations.

Interpretive Trail Building: The Theoretical Grounding

Innovative Learning Environments

The interpretive trail project reflects the growing body of research around innovative learning environments (OECD, 2015). Considering these principles in actively constructing learning environments allows us to create rich experiences where every learner can find success:

In Theory In Practice
Make learning central, encourage engagement, and be where learners come to understand themselves as learners. Throughout the experiences stemming from interpretive trail building, learners and learning remain at the center of the work. Students developed identities as trail builders, knowledge keepers and stewards of the land.
Ensure that learning is social and often collaborative. Through active engagement with a meaningful and relevant curriculum, students learned with and from others while considering a wide range of perspectives.
Be highly attuned to learners’ motivations and the importance of emotions. Positive emotions related to ownership of environmental improvements and respect for the sacred knowledge of place have significantly contributed to motivation and deeper learning as these positive emotions are linked to increased neural activity.
Be acutely sensitive to individual differences including in prior knowledge. Students had the opportunity for active inquiry about the environment and perspective-taking. Prior individual knowledge was a key contribution to group learning while on the land.
Be demanding for each learner but without excessive overload. Students could also physically use applied skills to support these more cognitive and personal inquiries.
Use assessments consistent with these aims, with strong emphasis on formative feedback. Student voice and recognition of the differences each learner brings to the development of the interpretive trail has created opportunity for rich discussion and much feedback about thinking toward this project. This was very evident in the schoolwide process of designing and evaluating various proposed models for the final trail layout. During these times all learners were stretched balancing the level of the challenge and a constantly evolving skillset. Peer and self-assessment of design projects was embedded in the co-development of criteria for success and measuring progress along the way.
Promote horizontal connectedness across learning activities and subject, in- and out-of- school. Nearly all learning activities engaged learners across multiple disciplines and bodies of knowledge.

In addition to the seven principles of learning are the three dimensions that allow us to define and organize innovative learning environments. In order to create powerful learning environments, organizations must:

  1. be innovative in their pedagogical core,
  2. be formative in their practice with strong leadership, and
  3. be open to partnerships (OECD, 2015).

Eagle View has approached the three dimensions explicitly and consciously. From the beginning we engaged with family and community partners to enrich the experiences as we re-considered who the learners are, who the educators are, what the curriculum is and, finally, the physical spaces and resources we use for learning. Shared experiences with our learning partners, from stakeholders to active players in our learning, have provided access to increased resources, knowledge, expertise and collaborations that richly informed us about the learning taking place. Throughout the process we have taken time to reflect upon, self-evaluate, and revise strategies to learn more deeply and further innovate.

The Racism of Low Expectations / Aboriginal Worldviews and Perspectives

Teachers’ fundamental expectations are one of the most powerful determinants of a students’ success (Kagan, 1992). A teacher who believes students are capable of excellence and can achieve greatness when properly engaged, can transform the lives of all those they teach. Likewise limiting beliefs and attitudes will have detrimental effects on the outcomes for learners.

In November of 2015, the office of the Auditor General of British Columbia published a report on the education of Aboriginal students. This report clearly notes it is of fundamental importance to improve learning outcomes for Aboriginal students through addressing “the racism of low expectations” (Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia, 2015, p. 37). Eagle View’s interpretive trail program seeks to create a non-racist community by raising our valuation of traditional knowledge in a highly visible way and providing access to deep meaningful access of this knowledge for all students.

Moving forward, we must address obstacles of safe, non-racist, culturally relevant learning environments that best serve Aboriginal and all learners. Ministry of Education work focused on building regional dialogue led to the resource called Aboriginal Worldviews and Perspectives in the Classroom, published by the Ministry of Education (2015). This work, which is a foundational part of our interpretive trail project, seeks to build connectedness and relationships with stakeholders in harmonizing the characteristics of Aboriginal ways of knowing and learning with the attributes of a responsive education system. Calls for building capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect were made clear by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the summary of the final report (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015). The Commission has identified the public education system as a key player in addressing the broken relationships between Canada and First Nations. It is the education system’s duty to redress the legacy of colonialism and residential schools.

It is precisely because education was the primary tool of oppression of Aboriginal people, and miseducation of all Canadians, that we have concluded that education holds the key to reconciliation.
Justice Murray Sinclair

Our goal to support Aboriginal education for all learners, in addition to improving outcomes for Aboriginal students is central to the Eagle View interpretive trail project. While there are many elements associated with this goal, two central themes emerge.

  1. We recognize the need to operate from a strengths-based approach, knowing our learners intimately in order to connect with their interests and build on strengths to engender confidence in learning.
  2. When necessary we also acknowledge and proactively address racism through explicit instruction, messaging to community and challenging thoughtless comments or practices that de-value Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives.

Raising Consciousness of Implicit Bias and Prejudice Reduction

Prejudice reduction and addressing racism are heavily researched and there are a multitude of documented strategies that can be effective in these areas (Paluck & Green, 2009). While explicit prejudice and bias are not tolerated in the education profession, there remains a need to address implicit bias and insist on high expectations of success for all learners.

One successful avenue for raising consciousness of implicit bias is the mindfulness approach. Research indicates that mindfulness and compassion activities assist in raising awareness of our emotions and sensations, regulating emotional responses and, specifically, reducing anxiety, increasing empathy and perspective-taking, and increasing overall gratitude and well-being (Magee, 2015). All students and staff at Eagle View practice mindfulness on a regular basis through our schoolwide inquiry focused of the use of morning meetings to develop a sense of belonging and purpose in our learning. Each day, classrooms begin their learning with morning meetings where explicit teaching and practice of these skills prepares all of us to be mindful of our own bias while respecting the values of others. This evidence suggests that mindfulness and compassion practices are important in creating the general conditions to support minimizing bias. It is our goal and approach to ensure that the mindfulness skills developed through morning meetings epitomize the interpretive trail work.

Additional opportunity to reduce implicit bias exists through increasing the respect for diversity and raising the value placed on differing worldviews and perspectives. Modelling this value and creating learning experiences that increase value can be effective in changing people’s beliefs and attitudes around equity and diversity (Deacon, 2016). These experiences provide opportunity to affect all participants including teachers, learners and stakeholder partners. While there will always be debate about the various methods used to change racist views, there remains a desire to assess the attitudes, beliefs and values of educators regarding issues of diversity, equity, and social justice (Brown, 2004).

A review of the effectiveness of prejudice reduction methods by Paluck and Green (2009) revealed that despite significant research in this area more evidence is required to support a majority of approaches. The most promising intervention approach is described as cooperative learning which employs narrative persuasion, social norms, empathy, perspective taking and extended contact. In particular, peers’ persuasive and positive influence in cooperative learning was noted to have an effect in laboratory research and real world interventions (Strangor, Sechrist & Jost, 2001, cited in Paluck & Green, 2009; Paluck & Green, 2009). It has been our experience that in their extended contact through the long term trail building process, educators, students, and learning partners have had opportunity to consider these perspectives, thereby providing the necessary circumstances for greater appreciation and a recognition of bias.

In considering the various approaches to prejudice reduction, it is apparent that core elements must exist to create the conditions necessary to reduce bias. Leaders at Eagle View explicitly model inclusive attitudes, beliefs and values around diversity while using sophisticated tools to ensure that practices and structures support these beliefs. Teachers and support workers also hold differing worldviews and perspectives in high esteem by embedding them into their practice. Finally, through extended contact with one another and mindfulness, we are maximizing empathy and perspective taking.


In retrospect there have been many unexpected barriers to completing this project, starting with the simple fact that the trail is located on both municipal and private lands. Significant time was spent developing collaborative partnerships and seeking permission from key stakeholders to move forward with the proposed trail improvements. While planning the curriculum and engaging learners are typical challenges for educators, transforming an elementary classroom into an applied skills workshop required significant creative thinking and careful planning. Although initial efforts to engage parents resulted in financial support from our parent advisory committee, it would have been beneficial to further engage parents in the construction of the trail by drawing upon local expertise and increasing efficiency in the process. Further, the shared experience of constructing this trail with parents would have extended the sense of ownership with parents and families.

As we consider the impact on learners and whether or not this experience has raised the valuation of Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives, we are reminded of a young learner helping to create the interpretive trail signs. When viewing the first draft he noted that the signs were backward; they listed the common and scientific names of the plants before the Kwak’wala name. Stemming from a series of open conversations about racism in our community during the early stages of the interpretive trail design project, his surmised that if the trail’s theme is traditional foods and medicine then we should honour that history and knowledge by placing the Kwak’wala language first. While not entirely quantifiable, this powerful voice provided us with evidence of a fundamental shift in moving toward raising consciousness of implicit bias and reducing prejudice.

Interpretive Trail Building: What Next?

To officially open the trail this June, Eagle View will invite all students, staff, education partners, Aboriginal learning partners, and community members to a proper ceremony. There will be an official blessing of the trail and Eagle View will celebrate the ongoing development of strong relationships and learning in our work. Further connections and growth will take place with the Community Trail Society to ensure this trail complements the existing network in a prominent way. In order to maintain the momentum of this powerful learning experience, Eagle View will establish a “Trail Blazers Club” where student leaders will act as stewards of both the trail and the learning that has taken place.

D'Arcy Deacon

D'Arcy is principal of Eagle View Elementary School located in Vancouver Island North. He plays key roles in leading district STEM challenges and developing education partnerships with community based enterprise and industry. D’Arcy is passionate about learning with a particular focus on student engagement and the development of Innovative Learning Environments.

Sean Barfoot

Sean completed his Education Degree in Outdoor Experiential Education at Queens University. For his Masters Degree he focused on Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Victoria. He has been an elementary school teacher for the past eight years in Port Hardy, BC, on the North end of Vancouver Island. Most recently, he has been teaching Kindergarten through Grade Seven students project and place-based learning. Sean is a father of two little adventurers and is passionate about using local outdoor places to engage his students in inquiry.

British Columbia Ministry of Education. (2015). Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives: moving forward. Victoria: Queen's Printer Publishing Services.

Brown, K. (2004). Assessing preservice leaders' beliefs, attitudes, and values regarding issues of diversity, social justice, and equity: a review of existing measures. Equity & Excellence in Education, 4, pp. 332-342. doi:10.1080/10665680490518948

Kagan, D. (1992). Implication of research on teacher belief. Educational Psychologist, 27(1), 65-90. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep2701_6

Magee, R. (2015, May 14). How mindfulness can defeat racial bias. Retrieved June 20, 2016, from Greater Good, Berkeley University:

OECD. (2015). Schooling redesigned towards innovative learning systems. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia. (2015). An audit of the education of Aboriginal students in the B.C. public school system. Victoria: Auditor General of British Columbia.

Paluck, E., & Green, D. (2009). Prejudice reduction: what works? A review and assessment of research and practice. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 339-367.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

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