How a Cambridge Bay program is opening students' eyes to the value of learning

Why learn how to graph a parabola when you can learn how to build and wire a cabin?

This is the philosophy behind Cambridge Bay's popular pre-trades program. Students who enrol enter three years of intense training, where they learn how to build a doghouse, an outhouse and finally, a fully functioning cabin.

"Everything that's built is used by the community," said Dale Skinner, who runs the pre-trades program at Kiilinik School.

He's been at the helm for six years, since he first arrived in the community. But he gives props to his former colleague Lee Olson, who created the program in Kugluktuk.

"Over a decade ago he came up with the idea," said Skinner. "Its original purpose was to get more students graduated."

Pre-trades takes students down a specific track, and they don't take any electives. In the first year, Grade 10 students get a taste of Newtonian physics by building a doghouse. The students work with hand tools and learn how to make proper measurements and use simple mathematics.

Then students get into angles, which they apply by learning to put roofs on their structures.

Finally, students are taught how to wire their structures, and Skinner brings in an electrician to check their work.

"What's nice about it is you don't get an A, B, C, or a D," he said. "Either you did it right and it works, or you re-do it."

'Magic' happens

Skinner explained it can be hard to engage students in classic subjects like English or math when it isn't obvious how to practically apply the curriculum.

But when you put a tool in a student's hand, "magic happens," he said.

"It's that drastic," said Skinner. "There's a person standing in front of you and their eyes are flitting all over the place and then you hand them a tool. All of a sudden, they're listening to you."

Rachel Zelniker/CBC

Dean Evetalegak is a 17-year-old student in Skinner's class.

He says he goes to school more than he would if he were studying classic curriculum because he'd rather "learn practical skills" than study math, reading and writing.

His favourite project was building a doghouse and he said he's happy to be able to help his community.

This sentiment was echoed by other students, like Mika Angohiatok.

"It's pretty fun," said Angohiatok. "You can build your own cabins to take your family out on the land, or sharpen tools for when you're working on animals."

Skinner said he'd like to see schools in more communities pick up pre-trades because it's so effective at engaging students.

In fact, he said the program has been so successful that many students don't end up going into apprenticeships, but are scooped up by the Nunavut government instead. Skinner pointed to one young man who originally wanted to become an electrician but is now in charge of fuel delivery to Cambridge Bay.

"He didn't become an electrician but he's got a very important job," said Skinner.

"'This is a career.' That's what he said to me."