A group of Winnipeg's inner city children are getting a special opportunity to learn about science at the University of Winnipeg, thanks to a unique education program called Eco-Kids on Campus.

For the students, most of them Aboriginal, it's their first opportunity to step onto a campus environment. Organizers are hoping that the innovative program, funded in part by Enbridge, will provide just the kind of step that will attract the children to a post-secondary education.

"The number one reason that young people do not attend post-secondary education is they have not been asked in a meaningful way," says Kevin Chief, coordinator of the university's Innovative Learning Centre, which oversees the program. "Eco-Kids helps to change that. It's a way to tap on their shoulder and say, you know, university can be for you."

Chief says the program is designed to help Grade 5 and 6 students from the inner city see university as an exciting place to learn. Children come to the university campus once a week for half a day for 10 weeks. They're engaged in hands-on science experiments, everything from DNA sampling, squid dissection, studying cells under a microscope and building mechanical machines. Science professors and university students take a strong role in leading activities and fostering a love of science in the children.

"We try to bring the wow factor to their learning experience," says Chief, in describing the program which he helped to co-found in 2007 along with University of Winnipeg president and vice-chancellor Lloyd Axworthy. " The professors just amaze the students. The kids get a chance to experience science in a fun, exciting way."

Between 25 and 40 students participate in the 10-week sessions, held three times a year. Each student is registered in the university's Opportunity Fund, which allows them to "earn and learn" tuition credits. For each school year they complete in Eco-Kids, they will have tuition credits "banked" in their name that can be used to attend the university.

With these benefits, it's not surprising that the program has quickly grown since its launch just four years ago.

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