NEM 2024 Interview Series: Ontario Tech University

Engineering Outreach at Ontario Tech University: Empowering Future Innovators

Meet Ellen James, the Engineering Outreach Manager at Ontario Tech University, whose journey from engineering to education has shaped her mission of inspiring the next generation of innovators. Ellen’s role involves strategizing with her team to engage K-12 youth and educators, collaborating with partners, and ensuring programs align with the university’s commitment to education, diversity, and community impact.

Tell me a bit about yourself & your background.

My name is Ellen James, and I’m the Engineering Outreach Manager at Ontario Tech University. My journey into STEM started with a four-year engineering degree, followed by working in the engineering industry. However, through my work as an engineer, I discovered that my true passion lay in making a meaningful impact on society. That’s when I made the decision in 2019 to transition into education and found Engineering Outreach, a program that teaches kids science, technology, engineering, and math from kindergarten all the way to grade 12. I now have an impact on the decisions youth make when choosing a career path, and I’m able to provide as much guidance as possible. My responsibilities include strategizing with the team for all of our programs, engaging with K-12 youth and educators, and collaborating with partners to secure funding and ensure outreach programs align with the university’s commitment to education, diversity, and community impact. So, that’s a little bit about myself and what I’m doing right now.

Why is National Engineering Month important to you and the engineering profession overall?

National Engineering Month is an opportunity to foster enjoyment and understanding of the engineering profession among those who may not be familiar with it. It’s crucial to share the various career paths available and why they might be of interest, particularly in engineering. This allows us to engage with the community, especially young minds, and showcase the exciting possibilities within the field of engineering. As the Engineering Outreach Manager, NEM provides an opportunity to amplify our efforts in promoting STEM education, fostering a love for innovation, and inspiring the next generation of engineers. It’s a chance to break down stereotypes, highlight the diverse and dynamic nature of engineering, and encourage students from all backgrounds to explore the possibilities within this field.

The theme for NEM 2024 is lifelong learning. What does the concept of lifelong learning mean to you? 

The concept of lifelong learning holds profound significance for me personally. I firmly believe that part of my role, as well as that of my team in Engineering Outreach, is to cultivate curiosity in young people, encouraging a continuous pursuit of knowledge. This entails fostering a commitment to ongoing skill development and gaining new perspectives throughout one’s life. It also involves staying abreast of the latest advancements in STEM fields, teaching methodologies, and the evolving needs of diverse communities.

For Engineering Outreach, particularly lifelong learning, ensuring the relevance of our programs is essential for innovation and alignment with the rapidly changing landscape of technology and education. Lifelong learning enables us to adapt our outreach initiatives to incorporate emerging trends, technologies, and best practices in STEM education.

Ultimately, if our programs lack a lifelong learning perspective, they risk becoming stagnant, lacking passion and interest. Thus, it’s crucial to tailor our marketing efforts to resonate with youth by highlighting topics like artificial intelligence, robotics, or app development—subjects that genuinely engage and connect with them. This focus on relevance and resonance is integral to our outreach strategy.

Can you tell me a little more about your company and the types of projects you work on?

We’re an organization situated within the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at Ontario Tech University. Established in 2014, we engage approximately 30,000 youth annually from the Durham region and surrounding areas. Our programs operate through a hybrid model, combining virtual and in-person formats, catering to students from kindergarten to grade 12, as well as educators focused on youth education.

Among our various programs, we prioritize initiatives aimed at teachers and underserved communities in STEM, particularly focusing on groups such as girls, Black youth, and Indigenous youth. Our Indigenous youth program, known as “inSTEM,” targets students from grade one to grade 12, aiming to ignite interest and provide role models in STEM education.

In my role, I oversee the planning of our youth and educator programs, ensuring alignment with partnership requirements and providing support to coordinators for program success. Additionally, I advocate for diversity and inclusion in STEM, fostering partnerships that advance our goals and reach underserved communities. While we attract passionate youth in STEM, we also strive to engage those who may not initially show interest, seeking to ignite a spark of curiosity in them.

Partnerships and collaborations are integral to our work, involving schools, community organizations, industry partners, and other stakeholders. These collaborations extend the reach of our engineering programs and facilitate networks that support our mission.

Regarding program accessibility, registration is open to all, with virtual programs accessible globally. In-person programs primarily target the Durham region but aim to be inclusive and accessible, typically offered at no cost, providing necessary technology and materials. Our approach emphasizes hands-on learning, contrasting traditional classroom methods, and prioritizes interactive, experiential learning experiences for participants.

How has the engineering profession changed over the past 5 to 10 years & how is Engineering Outreach at Ontario Tech University capitalizing on those changes? 

There are numerous ways in which I believe the profession has evolved. Over the last five to 10 years, entering the engineering profession has experienced a transformative shift driven by digital technologies. The demand for jobs requiring digital knowledge has significantly increased, alongside a heightened focus on sustainability. Sustainability entails ensuring that our processes and procedures are environmentally sustainable, prompting increased interdisciplinary collaboration.

Regarding engineering outreach, we’ve capitalized on these trends, particularly in enhancing digital skills among youth. One significant factor that accelerated digital skill growth was COVID-19. The pandemic necessitated digital adaptation, resulting in an unprecedented surge in digital competency.

Incorporating sustainable practices is a key focus in our workshops, emphasizing sustainable design principles and discussions around the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. We also emphasize interdisciplinary learning, aligning with the current educational trend of integrating science, engineering, math, and technology. By intertwining these subjects, we aim to create a more holistic understanding of engineering concepts and their real-world applications.

In our programs, we intentionally foster connections between mathematics, science, and technology, as engineering intersects with each of these fields. This interdisciplinary approach allows us to enrich participants’ understanding and appreciation of engineering’s interconnectedness with other disciplines, reflecting the evolving landscape of the engineering profession.

Are there any specific programs, initiatives, or outcomes happening at Engineering Outreach that you’d like to tell me about? 

I can provide a couple of figures that might interest you. Our annual report is also available on our website, so feel free to visit and gather any information you find relevant. For instance, with our Mobile Design Lab, we engage over 8,000 youth annually through in-class programs. While this is a paid program, we offer bursaries, and if a full school signs up, we provide a 50% discount. The program fee is also flexible, and not competitive. Through this initiative alone, we reach approximately 8,000 youth each year.

In our teacher programs, we reached 1,200 educators this year through conferences and professional development workshops. Investing in teacher training is crucial, as they have a broader reach than we do, interacting with far more youth.

In our high school programs, we engaged 8,400 youth through initiatives like InSTEM and our Indigenous programs, 2,200 through our Black Youth programs, and 2,800 through our Girls programming. These numbers highlight the impact of our targeted outreach efforts.

Allow me to highlight a couple of programs. Last year, we organized a two-day land-based camp for 18 Indigenous youth from grades 9 to 12. This immersive experience focused on the intersection of engineering and Indigenous knowledge, emphasizing STEM concepts within Indigenous traditions.

Another noteworthy initiative is our Future Leaders in Training program for high school students. This program equips participants with essential skills such as leadership, problem-solving, and financial literacy. Upon completion, students have the opportunity to participate in a micro-internship, gaining work experience for four to six weeks while developing workshops to teach STEM subjects to other youth. This program is particularly focused on underrepresented groups such as Black, Indigenous, and female students.

Our overall program numbers this year have been outstanding. I also want to emphasize the consistency of our efforts. Since 2020, we’ve consistently engaged with these groups, connecting with approximately 30,000 youth or just under 28,000 since then. This consistency reflects our commitment to our community.

What does the future of engineering look like and how does your Engineering Outreach fit into that? 

The future of engineering holds a landscape shaped by continuous innovation, emerging technologies, and a growing emphasis on diversity and inclusivity. In our region, Ontario Tech University plays a pivotal role in preparing the next generation for this dynamic future by providing students with hands-on experiences, mentorship, and exposure to cutting-edge STEM fields. We contribute to the development of a diverse and skilled talent pool, inspiring youth to explore STEM education.

Learn. Grow. Thrive. Together. 

National Engineering Month is Ontario’s platform for celebrating the remarkable world of engineering. With a dynamic mix of insightful discussions, industry expertise, and diverse viewpoints, we’re showcasing the best of the profession. Join us in advancing engineering excellence, igniting interest in future professionals, and recognizing the vital role engineers play in society. Be a part of the #NEM2024 experience by attending an event. Explore all the exciting details at

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