It was 2009, and she was organizing science activities for the Cree Health Board. She saw enormous potential in the new project, which was about to be constructed.
The Community Science Centre was going to be a high-end institution, with a classroom, video projection and an interactive museum display, accessible to both Whapmagoostui and Kuujjuarapik. It would offer science resources in Cree and Inuktitut.
Here was a building that could tie the communities to the Centre d’études nordiques (CEN), a research centre established by the Université Laval in 1971 to study the northern ecosystems and geosystems.
But there was one problem. There wasn’t anyone to reach out and help connect the community and research centre to the actual communities.
“The idea of the Community Science Centre was great. But I thought that just having a building wouldn’t be enough to get the community involved,” said Heffez.
So she initiated a collaboration between Youth Fusion – a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing dropout rates amongst Quebec students – and the Université Laval in order to have a full-time coordinator to work out of the centre.
The coordinator works in cooperation with the two schools and summer camps in Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik.
They run science workshops and activities, directly in the schools, in the Community Science Centre, and even outdoors. They also help facilitate meetings between youth and the science professionals who work at the centre.
Last year, Gaëlle Baïlon-Poujol filled the position. She says the focus of her work is to facilitate hands-on learning as well as hosting activities that inspire curiosity and a love of learning.
“We tried to make activities related to school, but in a fun way,” explained Baïlon-Poujol. “There are no exams. We learn through hands-on workshops and experiments.
“In the greenhouse I wanted kids to know where the food comes from. We were able to grow our own plants, and show them cool things, like how a strawberry actually comes from a flower.”
Originally from Montreal, Baïlon-Poujol appreciates the opportunity to work in the North.
“I like being so close to nature and wildlife. You can walk out of your house and be in total nature. You can go out and be on the beach and river. It’s calm and the people are so welcoming.”
Heffez says that the direct, hands-on approach is key to the success of the activities and workshops. She says that a good example of this happened last spring.
Students took an overnight trip to visit two separate and distinct ecosystems. They took core samples of two trees, one large and one small, to determine their respective ages. They learned that size isn’t necessarily a reflection of age. Other variables – like what immediately surrounds the trees – influence how big a tree will grow.
“Doing science in a hands-on way is the only real way to learn science,” says Heffez. “Textbooks have the conclusions. But science is about the process of discovery. You need to get your hands dirty.”
Heffez says the approach resonates with Cree youth, who learn traditional activities like hunting and basket weaving by spending time with people who are proficient at them.
With the continued involvement of Youth Fusion, she says that the centre will play a positive role in encouraging a love of science in the young people of Whapmagoostui-Kuujjuarapik.
“In order to involve the community you have to invest in long-term relationships. It takes an investment. Our collaboration with the Centre d’études nordiques and the schools has been really successful.”