Bruce Callow joins grade 5 students at Nakoda Elementary school in Morley while asking questions of Costa Rican aerospace engineer Alfredo Valverde who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The image was taken during NASA in Costa Rica workshops at the school. Courtesy Bruce Callow/ Submitted
With the global economy moving to technology-based jobs at lightning speed, a Calgary teacher is travelling the province to inspire STEM education in under-privileged youth.
Bruce Callow, who has spent decades teaching English and music in Central America, has spent the last year visiting schools and science centres in southern Alberta mentoring Indigenous youth in science with a focus on robotics and the space program.
After collaborating with a NASA astronaut while working on a climate change project in Costa Rica, Callow was able to expand his connections within the world-renowned aeronautics program.
He eventually wrote a book with his wife Ana Luisa Monge-Naranjo detailing the stories of 12 NASA scientists and why they’re passionate about science and space.
“To the Stars: Costa Rica in NASA” was published last fall in Spanish and English and has been part of Callow’s recent tour around southern Alberta, including an educational workshop at Nakoda Elementary School on the Morley native reserve just west of Calgary.
“I’ve always loved science but I was never very good at it. But the whole space program was always so interesting to me,” Callow said, adding last spring’s visit to Morley was one of the tour’s highlights when Indigenous students in Grades 4 and 5 had been studying space for months prior to his visit.
Callow’s workshops include discussions of his book, science education and a unique question-and-answer session with a NASA scientist through Skype or Google Chat.
“These kids prepared so well,” Callow said. “They were just so excited. The guys from NASA didn’t even have a chance to give the kids their presentation because they were just getting pummelled with questions. It was the most exciting conference I had ever seen.”
Callow also ran workshops at the Tsuut’ina Nation, at Telus Spark, helping Indigenous students prepare for an international robotics competition.
He also gave a presentation this spring at the University of Calgary’sIndigeSTEAMrobotics pow wow tournament, part of a program that mentors aboriginal youth in science education. It even includes the discovery of science embedded in Indigenous culture and knowledge through mentors, elders and community leaders.
“When Bruce was speaking, you could have heard a pin drop in that room,” said Wendy Hutchins, founding treasurer of IndigeSTEAM.
“When kids were listening to him, he made them feel like there are so many jobs they can do that are connected to science and engineering. And he showed them, through pictures, that there are real people doing real jobs like this.
“And for these kids, role models are everything. They hear from them: ‘This is what I wanted and this is how I got there,’ and that is so key. It allows the kids to see themselves in the future.”
Callow says Indigenous kids living on reserve and in rural areas are a big priority for him because they’re not always exposed to as much as city kids are.
“It’s wonderful to share with kids of all ages,” Callow said.
“But our aim is to reach out to populations who are not as privileged as those in major centres. Our aim is to reach out to Indigenous populations. That is absolutely a priority.”
This summer, Callow wrapped up his STEM education tour with a stop in Vulcan, Alberta, for the “Vul-Con” Star Trek Festival.
“That was more of a celebration than anything,” said Callow, adding that he got a kick out of sharing his book and stories of his experiences with science education with several “extraterrestrials” at the event.
Callow said the Vul-Con event and the entertainment of Star Trek is another great way to inspire kids about science.
Originally from Calgary, Callow has lived in Costa Rica on and off for 25 years teaching English, music and hockey to young children. He now teaches English to Chinese students through an online program. He’s even been recognized in the Hockey Hall of Fame for introducing the game of hockey to Central American kids on plastic ice.
Years ago, while working as a communications specialist at the British Embassy in Costa Rica, Callow connected with Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz, physicist, engineer and former NASA astronaut, while working on an environmental education project for kids.
After leaving the embassy, Callow began working for Chang-Diaz, who connected him with dozens of other NASA scientists that were embedded in several projects and scientific research from building Mars Rovers to conducting jet propulsion tests.
Callow’s book has spawned a sequel, he said, as he embarks on a string of stories about Guatemalans pioneering in space fields partnering with a Guatemalan-born NASA engineer who has already done the research.
Callow and his family leave soon to return to Central America for one year, and then plan on coming back to Calgary to continue working with First Nations students.
Callow says he will continue to develop his NASA contacts to bring their expertise to his STEM workshops via web conference. He also hopes to include David Saint-Jacques, the Canadian astronaut who just returned to earth this past June after spending six months at the International Space Station.