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Emily McKinnon

Emily McKinnon on the beach

Access instructor recognized with 2019 Merit Award

Science Educator, Emily McKinnon promotes Indigenous achievement

September 28, 2020 — 

Nearly three years ago, Emily McKinnon started teaching in the Access Program, a program providing holistic support to students attending the University of Manitoba. Over 80 per cent of Access students are Indigenous and many students are from the north.

Now McKinnon has been recognized for her work, with the University of Manitoba Merit Award for Promoting Indigenous Achievement 2019.

As Science Educator for the Access Program, McKinnon always strives to learn about Indigenous knowledge and culture, through training at work and consulting with Elders including Wanbdi Wakita, Unkan (Grandfather) for the Access Program. She also attends traditional ceremonies. Then, McKinnon works to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and a decolonizing lens in her teaching. For example, in biology, she points out the similarities between Indigenous oral history in storytelling and scientific theory, highlighting great similarities in two things traditionally considered at odds. She injects medicine wheel comparisons into her Statistics class, and provides students with examples of Indigenous scientists.

“I try to put things in a more familiar or different way, to connect with students. I am rethinking the way I teach,” says the science instructor.

Emily McKinnon, bird biologist, with her binoculars

Emily McKinnon, bird biologist with her binoculars

 “This is my first teaching-specific award. It’s really special that way,” she says, thanking her Access colleagues, Darja Barr and Diedre Desmarais as well as her students for their support.  “I hope it helps to shine a light on Access. It’s the best teaching gig. This has been a unique opportunity to take the science I have learned and direct it in an important way, providing our students with extra support. I am helping more students to have access to a science education.”

In her role, McKinnon sees herself as a bridge between students and researchers. While many science courses have class sections with 250 students, the courses she teaches in Access have less than 25 so she has the opportunity to really get to know all of her students, helping them with their studies and connecting them with research and job opportunities she knows would be perfect for them.

“Often my students are unaware of opportunities on campus. If I hear of a job or a research award, I can individually shoulder tap them if I think they would be a good fit. As a result, my students have won awards, and taken interesting jobs and opportunities they would not have known about otherwise.”

While she started her academic career as a researcher, this bird biologist has always loved teaching. In fact, her mother was a teacher and her father was a human rights officer, so she says it was a natural fit for her to help more students have access to a science education.

“Teaching feels like you can make more of a difference in the world. I feel like education is a gateway to do so many things. My students could go on to cure cancer or find the solution to climate change. I know they can make a difference in the world,” says McKinnon.

Diedre Desmarais, Area Director, Access and Aboriginal Focus Programs, says her colleague’s enthusiasm is contagious, she has good success rates in her classes, and students quite like her.

“We’re really proud of her,” says Desmarais. “It’s so good she has been recognized. With her award, she stands in the company of a number of dynamic scholars, and she’s one of them.

“Emily is very committed to ensuring our students are provided with a solid foundation to elevate them to a level playing field. She works with students, always with the goal that they will succeed. Emily is intelligent, compassionate, and committed. She contextualizes material in a good way, so that students understand it. She attends workshops on Indigenous ways of knowing and seeks the advice of Grandfather Wanbdi. She shows her students different perspectives are critically important. Students should know there are other ways of looking at things.”

Learn more about the Access Program.

See the complete list of 2019 Merit Award winners.

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