Black woman in blue head wrap and traditional African attire smiles for the camera
Dr. Afua Cooper is the principal investigator for A Black People’s History of Canada Project. Photo: Matthew Byard.

Dr. Afua Cooper, a professor of Black Studies at Dalhousie University, says she hopes a symposium at Dalhousie this week will inspire Black students to consider science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for their post-secondary studies.

Cooper serves as the lead for A Black People’s History of Canada Project, which is hosting the symposium titled Past/Future: African Canadian History, Arts and Culture in STEM Education. A Black People’s History of Canada Project explores Black Canadian history and further investigates how it can be integrated into STEM education.

“How do we continue to inspire Black children or students within the school system to stay in school and to take courses, finish their high school education, and go onto university?” Cooper said. “Because we know getting a post-secondary education is the gateway to economic opportunities.”

The symposium includes a social event tonight and panel discussions all day Wednesday and Thursday.

Cooper said she hopes the symposium helps attendees think of how history connects with STEM and other disciplines.

“How does history connect to mathematics? How does mathematics connect to music? How does history connect to music?” said Cooper. “So we want to kind of break down some of these disciplinary boundaries and really think holistically about education.”

STEM education

A Black People’s History of Canada Project has also partnered with Imhotep’s Legacy Academy, a mentoring program between Black Dalhousie science students and Black Nova Scotian school students in grades six to 12. Cooper said their mandate is to encourage African Nova Scotians children from elementary through to high school to get into STEM education.

“We don’t find Black people, whether as teachers or students or researchers, well represented in STEM,” Cooper said.

The symposium’s final session Thursday will include a presentation from Imhotep students as well as first, second, and third-place prize presentations to the winners of an essay writing competition for students put on by A Black People’s History of Canada Project in conjunction with Imhotep’s Legacy Academy.

“The essay competition involves students from elementary and high school researching Blacks in science and technology throughout history,” Cooper said. “Canadian Blacks, specific to Canada.”

‘Very diverse’ history

Cooper said people generally tend to look at history as having “one narrative,” but history is “very diverse” and “very multi-faceted.” So She said that’s also the case for the history of Black people in Canada.

“We wanted to look at history through a different lens,” Cooper said. “If you take someone like Dr. Clement Ligoure, a Black doctor in Halifax during the earlier part of the 20th century — he was one of the co-founders of the No. 2 Black Battalion — he was a medical doctor. And he was the hero of the Halifax Explosion.”

Dr. Clement Ligoure (1886-1922) worked as the sole doctor in the north end, tending to hundreds of severely injured victims of the Halifax Explosion.

“This is history but it’s medical history. It’s the history of civil rights, it’s the history of racism, and it’s the history of science and technology, in this case, medicine.”

“You may have a child who is not interested in history, who’s not interested in math, but if you put forth to that child a figure like say Clement Ligoure, the child may find it exciting.”

She also pointed to Haitian-Canadian car designer Ralph Gilles as a modern-day role model for Black kids in STEM education.

“He’s a contemporary guy, he’s still around today,” Cooper said. “Some of the cars we’re driving on the road, he designed them.”

“In the work of this man you have art, you have design, you have the technology of the automobile, you have contemporary studies. A lot of kids would find him an exciting figure. And you say, ‘Well, you know he had to do math in school,’ or, ‘You know he had to do X, Y, and Z in school,’ and that serves as an inspiration.”

African Canadian history, arts, culture in STEM education

While the symposium is open to the public, Cooper said she expects it to be largely attended by teachers, educators, academics, and students.

She said the workshops are geared especially towards educators because they’re the ones teaching in the classrooms.

Some of Wednesday’s panels will focus on slavery in Canada and historians of the future. Meanwhile, Thursday’s panels will deal with topics such as teaching African Canadian history, arts and culture in STEM, and teaching STEM in the Maritimes.

Cooper said there will also be an exhibit from Francis Jeffers called Black Scientists and Inventors that will include details about the work of more than 300 Black inventors and STEM innovators, from ancient Egyptians to contemporary scientists, inventors, and engineers.

“When you think of how so many of our Black scientists and inventors throughout history, their work was stolen from them,” said Cooper, using the example of Lewis Howard Latimer whose contributions to the lightbulb go uncredited in favour of Thomas Edison.

To view the full detailed conference program, click here. To register for the symposium, click here.

Dr. Afua Cooper. Photo: Matthew Byard.

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Matthew Byard, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Matthew Byard writes news, profiles, and stories of the Black Nova Scotia community. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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