Chris Mara: Putting First Nations students on the map in STEM

Year: 2018 – Province: Ontario

Transcription – Chris Mara-2018 Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence

[Black screen fades up to close-up of man in interview setting, against a mottled background. Music playing.]

[Caption: Chris Mara, Wasse Abin Wikwemikong High School]

[Chris speaking in interview setting alternates with voice over accompanied by still photos, as follows: Chris with students in classroom, examining a circuit a student is making; Chris wearing safety goggles and giving a thumbs-up; five students gathered around their robot, in progress, in school hallway; Chris with students and robot at robotics competition; Chris and student robotics team at competition, with one student holding a plaque, another holding a trophy and all wearing medals.]

Chris Mara: The number-one factor that contributes to student learning is teacher passion: teacher passion for the subject area that they’re teaching; the sense of wonder, curiosity, excitement around your subject. That excitement, that curiosity, that passion … creates an energy that the students really get excited about as well. You want to see their eyes sparkling. You want to hear what they have to say about either what you’re teaching or the project they’re engaged in. They’re taking incredible risks and putting themselves out there. The push is no longer coming from you as a teacher, but the students have taken over the momentum and are driving the project themselves.

[Chris speaking in interview setting alternates with voice over accompanied by still photos, as follows: overhead shot of Chris and group of students at a round table working on laptops; a robot in progress; two students working on assembling a part; a boy inserting a part into the robot; and a smiling girl holding two wrenches.]

Chris Mara: The perfect place for my students to learn? A space with space. I currently run a robotics program in the smallest room in our school. A tech-dedicated space where we have the manufacturing equipment, where we’ve got the 3D scanners, we’ve got printers, maybe even a CMC machine in there. Students being able to say, ‘This is the place where I can come and focus on my learning but also be myself and who I am.’

[Chris speaking in interview setting alternates with voice over accompanied still photos, as follows: two students assembling a part; one student working on robot; and a group of students posing with Chris at workbench.]

Chris Mara: Technology is also the students’ world. Technology is the sea that this generation swims in. The variety of technologies that are available, the richer our solutions will be, the more comprehensive, the greater the … efficacy of the solutions.

[Cut to voice over with video of Chris at a podium, addressing fellow recipients, with several listening, and then still photos, as follows: a group of students with robot at competition; and Chris at the whiteboard in the classroom, with students in groups at desks in the foreground.]

Chris Mara: My biggest piece of advice for pre-service teachers would be to teach who you are. On a fundamental level, you become the subject.

[Fade to black.]

[Cut to white screen, with the Government of Canada FIP followed by the Canada Wordmark.]

Certificate of Excellence Recipient

Chris Mara

Wasse Abin Wikwemikong High School
34 Henry Street
Wikwemikong, ON P0P 2J0

School telephone: 705-859-2870
School website:


Subjects and grades taught: Computer Science, Applied Science, Manufacturing Technology, Calculus, Physics, Math, grades 10–12

Chris Mara sets out to show his students—at-risk, marginalized, indigenous First Nations youth in a remote on-reserve community—that they can succeed in anything they do, including STEM. He is dedicated to providing opportunities for his students equal to those that other youth have.

Teaching approach

Using hands-on, practical experiences, Chris finds interactive ways to support students in STEM learning. He also works to ensure they have a voice and can be involved in innovation and the larger conversation in STEM, all while being firmly rooted in—and being ambassadors for—their First Nations community.

In the Classroom

  • Provides the resources, tools and opportunities for students to learn robotics: by participating on the school's FIRST robotics team, 5672 "First Nation STEM," students learn they can be engineers, mathematicians and scientists; they now mentor other students at a school in the region
  • Keeps his sights on students' future careers: students use Office 365 to collaborate and enhance projects with video, images and graphics; encourages robotics team members to treat the team as a business, teaching them entrepreneurship skills, such as how to write a business plan
  • Stresses the possibilities for girls in STEM: girls play leadership roles on the robotics team; Chris drove a group of girls across the province to attend a conference to hear inspirational speakers, do team-building activities and learn about STEM career opportunities
  • Breaks down isolation: students are encouraged to use social media responsibly to help open doors; Chris takes robotics team members to workshops and seminars on coding and programming; guests such as Canada's first female astronaut visit the school

Outstanding achievements

  • Robotics team qualified for the quarterfinals at first competition and won the Highest Rookie Seed and Rookie Inspiration Awards; team is now Canada's longest-sustained First Nation robotics team
  • Female robotics team member was part of conference panel on leadership with prominent adults; her speech about resilience and showing strength through adversity received very positive feedback
  • Inspired creation of another high school FIRST Robotics team on Manitoulin Island and was instrumental in starting and supporting four FIRST Lego League teams there
  • Took robotics team from extracurricular activity to Ministry of Education-approved credit course; launched year-long manufacturing technology/business course at school

Rave reviews

"He taught me more than just school subjects. He really encourages individuality and creativity. Overall, he taught me to be more confident in myself and to never give up. He is selfless ... and willing to put the needs of the team and students before his own needs."