Building rockets, boats, and futures

Building rockets, boats, and futures

Justin Gordanier engages Aboriginal youth in hands-on STEM activities in new Access to Engineering role.

By Wanda Praamsma

July 26, 2016


Justin Gordanier can easily pinpoint the best part of his job.

He started as Aboriginal community engagement coordinator in the Aboriginal Access to Engineering (AAE) program this past spring, and so far he’s already spent many days out in communities working with young children to boost their interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM fields).

“I love to see the students who typically don’t do well in school take the lead when given the chance to do hands-on activities, like making boats out of recyclable materials,” says Mr. Gordanier (B.Ed.’14), who in addition to his Queen’s Education degree, holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Brock University.

Justin Gordanier joined Melanie Howard in the Aboriginal Access to Engineering office this past spring.

“All of a sudden, you see these kids’ confidence soar and they begin to help the others who aren’t as good at the hands-on work. They get to see each others’ strengths and work together. It’s nice to see that shift.”

Mr. Gordanier works alongside AAE Director Melanie Howard and together they’ve developed an outreach program to engage Aboriginal students ages 6-13 in communities throughout Ontario and Quebec. Travelling many days a month, Mr. Gordanier is visiting First Nation day camps throughout the summer, working with the children on science and engineering activities. He spends a few hours at each of the camps every week. Throughout the school year, Mr. Gordanier will be working in First Nation schools and with teachers to help them develop long-term plans to integrate more hands-on STEM learning opportunities in their classrooms.

Queen’s Aboriginal Access to Engineering 
Unique in Eastern Canada, this program aims to increase the number of Aboriginal engineers across the country. It has a dual focus – it offers on-campus support to current Aboriginal students and aims to foster future development of younger generations, by providing resources for students at the elementary and secondary levels to encourage them to stay in school and keep studying math and science. Learn more on the website.

“The activities I do with the kids are fun but educational, and the response so far has been great. They look forward to what’s coming the next week, especially when it’s building rockets or something like that,” he says. “And it’s all collaborative group work, so they are learning to work together, as well as life skills such as patience and perseverance.”

Mr. Gordanier’s work is part of AAE’s broader plan to increase engagement and interest among Aboriginal youth in the STEM fields. They want to get into schools early and build long-term, sustained relationships with both students and educators. “It is well-known that Aboriginal people are underrepresented in post-secondary and this program aims to help change that,” he says.

With his science and education degrees, as well as his Mohawk ancestry, Mr. Gordanier is well-suited for the position. He grew up in Deseronto, Ont., close to the Tyendinaga community, but he says it wasn’t until university that he became really interested in his culture.

“When I went to Brock, this large, diverse community, I saw people from so many different cultures, and it sparked my interest in my own culture and history. During the summer, I worked at a daycare at Tyendinaga, and while I had always wanted to go to medical school, I realized I loved working with kids and that made me go into teaching.”

While supply teaching at Quinte Mohawk School, he met Ms. Howard, who was working on other outreach activities with the community through Queen’s AAE. She told him about the new position in her office, and Mr. Gordanier quickly applied.

“It’s an exciting and rewarding job that allows me to use all of the skills I’ve developed over the years,” he says. “I love watching the kids’ eyes light up while doing the activities I’ve set out for them. We don’t know for sure how it will impact or change their lives, but you can see the excitement and how much they enjoy it.”


Smith Engineering