Teaching Minds, Healing Bodies: A Canadian college encourages students to enter health careers by emphasizing math and science skills

Nov 15th, 1991 | By | Category: 3-3: Math, Science and Medicine, Features
By Rahael Jalan

Traditional healing in the Lakota culture

There is a high degree of control over the process of health and healing exercised by doctors, dentists and other health care professionals. In contemporary health care it is believed that only modern medicine, with its powerful array of medications and technological interven­tions, can remedy health problems most effectively.

Not surprisingly, the experiences and observations over the centuries which make up the traditional body of knowledge about health care and the prevention of disease has been large­ly ignored by the medical community. Traditional culture and ways of life are seen as backward and ritualistic, with no scien­tific basis. In recent years, however, the long term effects of some of the modern medical and technological processes have been under scrutiny. Understanding the potential for self heal­ing, community-oriented health care issues such as education and prevention are taking root.

There is no doubt that scientific and technological advances have contributed significantly to the quality of life on the planet. However, in embracing the new, the old ways and traditions have been rejected as unscientific and at times have been outlawed. Only now are some scientists beginning to recognize and acknowledge that the wisdom of the ancients are not automatically harmful.

Traditional healing practices were passed on by word of mouth through the generations and there is very little written documentation of the methods used. Ancient healers relied on natural remedies, recognizing the power of nature and spiritu­ality. Today’s environmental movements, which emphasize greater harmony with nature and its protection, have much in common with Indian philosophy and practice. It seems that we have come full circle.

We are now poised at a moment in history when the modern and the ancient could merge and forge a new path towards a more balanced lifestyle. But to achieve a balance between the two, there needs to be an innovative approach to our system of education. Traditional learning from one’s elders in the community and in the education institutions should exist side by side. We need to move quickly in this direction. Otherwise, the vast repository of undocumented knowledge may be lost forever to the new generations.

Poor Preparation

Before native peoples can fully participate in these changes, they must have training in math and science, which is the essential foundation for any medical or technical career. However, there seems to be an underlying perception that Indians do not have a leaning towards math and science because of their culture and background. A sub­stantial number of students seem to suffer from what may be termed “math and science anxiety.”

This is not merely a problem with native American stu­dents. It is a general problem. Students are not taught a wide range of basic mathematical and scientific concepts at the pri­mary and secondary school levels. Their analytical skills are not developed and they find it difficult to work a problem through to its logical conclusion. Therefore, they do not have a firm grounding in the fundamental principles necessary to deal with the somewhat more complex concepts in math and science when they enter university-level classes. The transi­tion from school to university becomes very difficult for many students.

These barriers are more pronounced in the case of Indian children, however, because they are not encouraged to learn math and science in the school system. The con­sequence of this poor preparation and lack of confidence can be seen particularly in the area of health care. While health care is a major concern for Indian people, native peoples are severely under-represented in the health care professions. Consequently, they can rarely receive health care from indi­viduals of their own communities who are sensitive to their culture and concerns. This situation will not change until there are sufficient numbers of Indian doctors and other health professionals.

There is, then, an urgent need to attract more Indian stu­dents into the health care professions. However, many Indian college and university students are reluctant to express their desire to become doctors because they have not been given the necessary foundation in math and science and therefore feel that it is beyond their capabilities. Moreover, students coming from a reserve find it difficult to adapt to the mainstream high­er education system. In order to attract more Indian students into these areas there has to be an overall effort to promote programs in math and science in Indian communities.

Building Skills at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College

The science department at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College offers a program designed to service this need. In 1985 the Medical Services Branch of Health and Welfare Canada, partly in response to the con­cerns expressed by the World Assembly of First Nations in 1982, funded an initiative by the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College for the purpose of developing and imple­menting “a health career program (HCP) that will prepare Indian students for a career in one of the health professions.” During the ensuing years the program was established at the college as the Indian Health Careers Program.

One of the objectives of the program is to provide learning experiences that will enable students to enhance their under­standing of Indian culture, traditional Indian medicine, cur­rent and future health care needs and the goals of Indian peo­ple. To meet this objective, the program developed five Indian health science courses. These courses were designed specifical­ly to meet two goals. First, they gave students information rele­vant to the health care system as it currently relates to native people. Second, they were designed to enhance the students’ understanding of the traditional practices of health and heal­ing by aboriginal peoples of the Americas. Emphasis is also placed on traditional religious philosophy and practice as they relate to the concept of health. Various changes that have occurred in traditional practices are traced and examined. Students discover how these changes have affected the current practice of religion and healing.

However, the primary objective of the program is to provide first and second year pre-professional university level classes that will fulfill the admission requirements of post-secondary health science programs and give students transferable credits towards such programs. The Indian Health Care Program had a choice of allowing its students to enroll in the university’s math and science courses or develop its own offerings in these areas. Students had difficulty coping with the large classes in mathematics and sciences offered by the university. This led to the creation of the Department of Science at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College.

The college’s science department has worked continuously to improve the quality and effectiveness of the program for Indian students by stressing a native American perspective and provid­ing strong academic support. To accomplish this, the program:

  • recruits qualified and committed faculty members to teach the required pre-professional math and science courses;
  • keeps introductory math and science class size as small as possible in order to help beginning students meet the required academic standards;
  • provides academic support and enrichment in order to bridge the gap for those students weak in math and sci­ence. Some classes meet five or six hours a week instead of the prescribed four hours per week. Professors are willing to devote considerable time to students outside the formal class contact hours for purposes of review and tutoring;
  • is committed to presenting a strong Indian perspective and emphasizes the relevance of such courses to contem­porary Indian concerns.

Increased Enrollment and Success

The effectiveness of this program is reflected in the increased enrollment in all courses offered by the depart­ment. We have seen an increase in the number of Indian students who have indicated a desire and demonstrated the abil­ity to learn math and science. Many non-Indian students have also enrolled in the Indian Health Studies classes.

We have learned some important lessons from the program. In teaching math and science to Indian students it has been our observation that, given the opportunity and encouragement, they are able to deal with the complex concepts of mathematics and science. It is not that there are significant differences between Indian and non-Indian students with respect to learn­ing abilities in math and science. The problem is that Indian stu­dents are not equipped with the necessary prerequisites and therefore are not confident about undergoing professional train­ing requiring math and science.

In order to promote education in general there is a need to stimulate intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth in chil­dren. It is necessary to encourage diversity and a healthy ques­tioning attitude, rather than conformity and a mere acceptance of established norms. Cross cultural education and an under­standing of the diversity of coexisting cultures will serve to enhance and promote tolerance, and add to our wealth of knowledge.

Rahael Jalan is a member of the faculty at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Regina, Saskatchewan.

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