Research brings industry knowledge and community mindedness into the classroom
Mount Royal University’s professors are connecting with industry partners and their communities to challenge long-held beliefs, improve student wellness and introduce progressive policies for the planet and our workplaces.
Research at Mount Royal is leading towards change ― for the better. Shaping the world we live in, this sampling of current initiatives demonstrates the impact of this ongoing work.
Building communities and engaging in the process of reconciliation is a key component of research for Tracy Friedel, PhD, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Studies at Mount Royal.
Indigenous research, says Friedel, a descendant of the nêhiyawêwin (Cree)-speaking Métis people of mânitow sâkahikanihk (Lac Ste. Anne) in west-central Alberta, is an important part of the University’s Indigenization Strategy. It also contributes to larger issues of improving conditions for Indigenous Peoples and educating Canadians about their role about the country’s colonial past and what they can do going forward to make things better.
Indigenous research has evolved in progressive ways. In the past, that research was often done to Indigenous Peoples, often without their knowing. Today, says Friedel, it is approached much differently and it is the communities themselves that often identify a problem or need in a certain area like health, and will reach out to universities and ask to partner with researchers to solve that problem.
Because of that legacy of research happening to Indigenous people over the years, a lot has to go into relationship building with communities. Research has to be of benefit to those communities.
“It’s taken us a long time as a country to get to this point where we are today with respect to ongoing injustices that happened for Indigenous communities,” Friedel says, invoking the image of the Fort McMurray wildfires in 2016. “Eventually firefighters were able to put that out, but it never really goes out because the tundra, the peat moss continues to burn underneath, and the next year or the year following, it doesn’t take much and you can get a spark and the burning begins all over again. I think Canada’s history is a lot like that. We have unresolved issues with respect to stolen land, stolen sovereignties, very tragic events, genocidal events that have happened to Indigenous Peoples to facilitate settler colonialism.”
These issues are still at play and flare up as a result of, for example, the recent Gerald Stanley trial in Saskatchewan. Much work remains and there is a crucial role for education and research in supporting Indigenous people.
“We’re asking Canadians to be there alongside us, but in so doing to examine their own subjectivities and privilege and what this work will mean for relationship building going forward.”
Using the Mount Royal campus as a micro-community to study the use of outdoor spaces, professor Shannon Kell, PhD, aims to get more students outside to enhance their learning and wellbeing.
A past physical education teacher, Kell combines her experience and current role as professor and researcher to learn how we spend time outdoors — and to encourage others to discover the joy of fresh air to revitalize ourselves.
Nearly 500 students participated in a cross-campus survey to identify how the campus was being used. It turns out, we don’t use our outdoor spaces well, and Kell hopes to challenge students to make more time for being outdoors.
“There’s plenty of research that shows spending time outdoors has a positive impact on our cognitive function and emotional wellbeing,” says Kell. She notes that a future challenge is planned to encourage students to engage in more outdoor activity — and get away from their smartphones.
“Younger people are less inclined to be outside. We have to teach them,” she says. “Students of university age now are the most addicted and connected to technology.” Kell says unplugged, alone time outside is critical for the development of children and young adults.
Kell teaches MRU’s teacher-candidates in the Education program to encourages outdoor time as part of their own classrooms when they graduate.
The results of MRU’s campus survey will be shared to improve the designed spaces on campus, but also inform other institutions for facility planning. As student mental health continues to be an important topic on campuses across North America, this research will help inform how to combine space planning and wellbeing for students.
“It’s hard. We have cold winters,” says Kell. “But we have great spaces that could be used year-round for a quick break outside.” It’s a challenge Kell looks forward to implementing in our own backyard.
Fourth-year Bachelor of Health and Physical Education student Cole Romeo is literally putting his research to work. With the help of professor Shannon Kell, PhD, he’s been able to link his studies, research passions and career together.
“I decided to focus my final project in Dr. Kell’s class on injury prevention in sport because it directly bridges the gap between my schooling and real-world application,” says Romeo.
The Physical Literacy major is researching how to prevent and recover from training injuries in partnership with his employer, Calgary-based sport performance centre, the Athlete Factory. Romeo landed a permanent job as a strength and conditioning coach after two practicums with the company, where he says he’s been able to contribute to meaningful science-based studies on performance.
“My specific research is to see if I can alter the intermuscular sequencing during a front squat to create the pattern needed for acceleration coordination,” says Romeo, who uses electrodes to identify patterns of muscle engagement during the activity.
The issue is that movement patterns are habitual. According to Romeo, Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injuries are still a major injury in professional and amateur sport, despite the current literature on ACL injury prevention programs. Romeo’s research is challenging the assumption that the body will figure it out on its own by addressing the coordinative pattern.
Romeo hopes to continue his work by pursuing a Master’s degree in Kinesiology and is being mentored by Kell in the classroom and by his colleagues in the athletic training industry to prepare a future thesis in the topic.
“Resilience is born from a deep suffering,” says Gabrielle Lindstrom, PhD, professor of Indigenous Studies. She believes that when we focus on the sorrow-stories of oppressed populations, we miss the inherent strength and perseverance that Indigenous people have.
Lindstrom looks inward, to the research community and to elders to change the narrative. “It’s really about reframing,” says Lindstrom.
Lindstrom’s research informs her teaching of Indigenous Studies from the Canadian and international perspective courses, where she’s redefining resilience in order to effectively foster it for all students in the classroom — through the creation of an ethical space where all histories are explored and valued.
“We don’t know a lot of our own history,” says Lindstrom, who recalls her own learning experience on the Blood Reserve which did not include Indigenous perspectives or ways of knowing in the curriculum. She takes this experience to investigate and teach the interplay between trauma and resilience of both Indigenous and Western learners.
“What’s good for Indigenous students is good for all students,” says Lindstrom. “I look for intersections between Indigenous and Western world views to build good relations and envision a parallel path through post-secondary learning.”
Students learn that they have an active role in creating relationships and making a difference in their corner of the world. This, Lindstrom says, is the key to the reframing that needs to happen to build the kind of Canada they want to see. Here, the MRU community is young and small, so students from different backgrounds can confront their own perspectives by engaging in the “ethical space,” a concept she has adopted from Indigenous scholar Wille Ermine.
By engaging with elders in the Indigenous community, Lindstrom is looking to build relationships to make an impact in her community by reporting back and validating her work, embarking on research with on-reserve educational organizations, and continuing to inform teaching methods among post-secondary institutions. She envisions this work as influencing other social systems that have direct impacts on Indigenous Peoples.
While new to Calgary, Professor Felix Nwaishi, is not new to the industry this province is known for. For years, Prof. Nwaishi has been working with the oil and gas industry to help them meet and exceed environmental regulatory requirement of ecosystem reclamation and has recently brought this work to MRU classrooms in his ecology classes.
Nwaishi’s research investigates how the industrial development of the oil sands affects ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling in natural ecosystems, while contributing towards the reclamation of self-sustaining ecosystems in post-disturbance sites. Specifically, Nwaishi measures nutrient inputs, cycling and output in wetlands, and how the concentration ratios in plant tissue can be used to predict feedbacks on ecosystem functions such atmospheric carbon accumulation and water use efficiency in ecosystem productivity. This ratio serves as a functional indicator for assessing the health and sustainability of a reclaimed site based on how plants are utilizing limited resources (water and nutrients) to sustain ecosystem functions in this novel environment. This approach is particularly important in the Athabasca oil sands region context, where water could be a major limiting factor for plant establishment in reclaimed soils due to the sub-humid climate and poor soil structure. He says this work is a win-win scenario, for industry and the planet.
“Industry has a regulatory requirement to reclaim sites,” says Nwaishi. “This work bridges environmental scientific knowledge, government policy, and industry guidelines.” Nwaishi notes that reclamation assessment has progressed from a structural approach, like number of trees planted, to a functional approach, measured by the functional capability of the site, including efficient cycling of resources to provide habitats that are rich in biodiversity.
As an environmental scientist, Nwaishi believes that working with industry will lead to real, continued improvements in environmental quality and ecosystem health, an opinion that isn’t always popular among environmentalists or critics of energy development.
“We need science-based decisions,” says Nwaishi. He argues that while some may view research investment from industry as being controversial, research that improves the effectiveness and speed at which disturbed environmental is reclaimed benefits the planet and helps industry meet their regulatory obligations quickly, saving money and advancing towards sustainable resources exploration in Canada.
Nwaishi’s students benefit too. Environmental Science students receive first-hand knowledge about scientific approach used in addressing real-world problems, as he shares his research findings and experience of reclaiming oil-sands sites to the classroom.
Rachael Pettigrew, PhD, professor in the Bissett School of Business, is exploring employer culture and policies that help employees’ manage their work-family responsibilities. She has been investigating parental leave use by male employees and the possible reasons preventing men from taking leave, such as stigma and managerial attitudes, which Pettigrew says is a social justice issue.
“The more we can encourage men to use leave, we will see all sorts of benefits like marital satisfaction and child engagement,” says Pettigrew. “It will also balance the stigma, due to leave taking, that women face right now.”
While almost 30 percent of women are currently out-earning their partners, says Pettigrew, 90 percent of leave-takers are still women. Fatherhood is virtually invisible in the workplace she says, leaving an imbalance for fathers and mothers, but this should not be seen as strictly a male-centered issue.
Canada fairs fairly well when we compare ourselves to other English-speaking nations, like Australia and the U.S.A. Though a new Parental Sharing Benefit is coming in March 2019, Canadian men up to this point have had to negotiate with both partners and their respective employers. This is different historically from countries that we traditionally think of as progressive, like Sweden or Denmark, where time is defined for fathers, removing the subjective discretion of the employer experienced here.
Without workplace experience, Pettigrew says that her students are sometimes unaware about the stigma surrounding parental leave use for either men or women — some students believe this will not impact their careers. However, discussing topics surrounding gender in the workplace better prepares all students as they begin their career. Through her research and teaching, she’s trying to shift the thinking around inclusivity in the workplace with this next generation of business leaders and human resources professionals, because it’s what will make companies competitive in the future.
“There appears to be a shift,” says Pettigrew. “Organizations recognize now that diversity in the workplace offers a competitive advantage.”
This is not lost on Calgary businesses. As baby-boomers retire, employers will need to attract employees with inclusive policies. Pettigrew is currently working with local industry to ensure workplace policies encourage diversity in the workplace.
How do online activists or stakeholders affect change in corporate and political decisions in the twenty-first century wired world? Professor Peter Ryan, PhD, tackles this modern phenomenon in his research, consulting, and in the classroom – answering important questions about online influence and gives students opportunities to explore the topic with political leaders in the classroom.
“Everything we do is one click away from being posted publicly online today, so leaders and students must learn how to use digital tools to excel in that potentially volatile work environment,” says Ryan.
Ryan's recent January 2019 publication titled “Alberta Elections Online 2006 to 2016: Digital Retail Politics and Grassroots Growth” documents the development of political party social media use during elections over the past decade in Alberta. It demonstrates how politicians' digital shadows must remain consistent with their lived authentic personas to maintain support and win elections.
“We can better understand controversial issues and crises of our time by tracking online conversations to establish how dominant groups and voices on the web influence corporate and political organizations,” says Ryan, who uses digital analysis and online tracking tools on political texts to understand how communication documents change over time.
This work helps students understand how to use their developing public relations skills to succeed in the present day corporate and political environment.
“The impact of such learning experiences helps maintain Mount Royal’s public relations program as the top in Western Canada, especially as the program's students complete two work placements as a part of their degree, in addition to research assistantship (RA) opportunities,” says Ryan.
Beyond the classroom, Ryan consults on corporate and political social media campaigns, which he can then bring into the classroom. Most recently he worked on the U.S. mid-term elections, which he could then discuss and use as an example with his students as the election unfolded. His future research will focus on new online shadow campaign groups that are changing how Canadian elections are fought, with a particular focus on energy and sustainability issues.