Niikaan Project looks to the future

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Minority Media and the Cree School Board (CSB) are bringing an innovative project to high schools in Eeyou Istchee: a three-year video game concentration program dubbed the Niikaan Project (pronounced Nee-gan with a soft k).

Led by Serge Béliveau, Deputy Director General of the CSB, and Minority Media co-founder and Creative Director Ernest Webb, the Niikaan Project will launch Secondary 3 students into the world of video game theory, development and design. Continuing through to the end of Secondary 5, students will eventually work together to produce their very own video game in the final year.

“I wanted to make it simple, something that everybody could say,” said Webb when describing how he came up with the name. “I was looking to the culture, how Crees create and all the different root words that we use in terms of creation, artwork and technology.

“The night before the deadline I went to the thesaurus, Cree dictionary, Cree cultural websites, looked through our legends. It was tough to come up with something. I ended up going to bed at 3 am and when I woke up the word ‘Niikaan’ just came to me. It’s the root word for moving forward, going to the future and leading the way – and it describes the project perfectly.”

Niikaan Project Oujé-Bougoumou2

Students involved in the Niikaan program have the chance to learn a wide range of skills including art, game design, sound production and writing. The project hopes to increase students’ motivation and introduce a new style of learning to the regular high school curriculum. It gives students the chance to familiarize themselves with evolving technologies and tell their own stories through digital media.

“There’s a high dropout rate in a lot of schools,” said Webb. “One of the goals is to help mitigate those numbers and increase the interest level on the part of the students. If they want to pursue that line of work, they’ll have a good background in it already. When they go to Cégep or university, they’ll have a good foundation.”

Webb also said that while the program is based around video-game production, there are elements to the curriculum that train participants in other forms of media.

“They’ll learn how to write, they’ll learn how to put movies together, they’ll learn animation,” he explained. “It’s a multi-faceted program, not limited only to video games.”

With a pilot project already underway at Waapihtiiwewan School in Oujé-Bougoumou, the CSB and Minority Media have been working closely with art teacher Catherine Boisvert and librarian Ashley Dunne to work out the kinks and carefully measure student response.

Webb says that so far students are playing their cards close to their chest but he’s confident that the program will bring about positive results in the long run.

“I think the students may be holding their collective breath and waiting to see how this pans out. Once they realize that it something real and not a temporary project, we may see outward enthusiasm,” he said.

“We have been told anecdotally that class attendance goes up when they have Niikaan classes. The people we work with are arguably the best in the world, so for them to go to Oujé-Bougoumou and work with the students, I have no doubts that it will have a big impact on them.”

Niikaan project Oujé-BougoumouNiikaan Project Oujé-Bougoumou

The ultimate goal of the Niikaan project is to give its students a voice to represent themselves in digital space and use in-class discussions and activities to help participants develop a critical perspective as consumers of technology, video games and social media.

At the beginning of each new module, industry professionals pay the students a visit to share their knowledge and personal experience while providing hands-on technical lessons.

“We presented what we’re doing at the Cree School Board symposium last September,” Webb concluded, “and the question from a lot of people was ‘When can we get this in our school?’

“The decision to expand the program and bring it to schools in other communities will be up to the school board.”


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