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Educators from across Canada learn about oil sands development. Photo by Tung Bui.

Summer Institute 2019: A first-hand look at the oil sands

Educators from across Canada discover for themselves the standards Canadian companies use in developing oil sands resources

To be effective in the classroom, educators must keep up with evolving information. Teachers are also tasked with presenting diverse perspectives on sometimes complex and contentious topics, and challenging students to critically evaluate different points of view.

This is particularly true of energy development.

To help meet those needs, 15 educators from across Canada visited Alberta’s oil sands for three days last July. They received a first-hand view of the industry through the Summer Institute on Responsible Energy Development — part of the Energy IQ program run by Canadian Geographic Education, a division of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS). Educators were able to visit live, working oil sands production facilities and environmentally reclaimed lands. They also met the men and women who work in the oil sands, as well as community members and Indigenous groups directly impacted by development.

Educators view reclaimed forests as part of their tour of Canada’s oil sands. Photo by Tung Bui.

“The objective of Energy IQ is to provide a balanced look at Canada’s energy resources and provide factually accurate learning resources for educators across Canada,” explains Mike Elston, vice-president, Facilities with RCGS. “Under that umbrella, the Summer Institute is designed to promote the Energy IQ program to enthusiastic teachers who can then return new or updated learnings to their classrooms, colleagues, school boards and communities.

“With the large amount of misinformation that circulates through social media and other sources, it’s important for Canadian Geographic Education to provide a balanced view of the energy industry and the oil sands in particular.”

Mike Elston

“With the large amount of misinformation that circulates through social media and other sources, it’s important for Canadian Geographic Education to provide a balanced view of the energy industry and the oil sands in particular.”

A whirlwind introduction to the oil sands

Sara Black is Manager, Education Programs with RCGS. She assists educators across Canada in teaching geography-related topics by creating inclusive and engaging resources. Sara was involved with the team who selected the Summer Institute participants. “Our team selected participants based on the subjects they taught, number of years’ experience and the educator’s ideas on how they hope to use this summer institute experience in their classrooms and schools. We also tried to ensure representation from all across Canada.”

Teachers interact with the Giant Floor Map, a unique interactive tool that shows where energy resources are located and how they are transported across Canada. Photo by Tung Bui

The Summer Institute was developed to raise awareness of responsible development in the oil sands. The program focuses on four key education areas:

  • the difference between surface mining and in situ production.
  • environmental management in the oil sands, with a focus on reclamation and wildlife protection.
  • the role innovation and technology play in reducing the industry’s environmental footprint.
  • the variety of perspectives on oil sands development, with a focus on Indigenous relations and partnerships, and economic and community benefits.

RCGS worked with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA) to design an intensive tour that would meet these objectives. The tour started with a visit to MEG Energy’s Christina Lake in situ development, continued to Syncrude’s surface mining and upgrading operation on the second day, and ended with a number of technical presentations.

Before and after

Before the tour, educators completed a survey to gauge their understanding of the oil sands. The majority of respondents said they had little knowledge of the industry beyond largely negative media coverage, which in turn challenged their ability to provide current, factual information or multiple perspectives to their students. Other pre-tour comments included, “It’s difficult to make this topic relevant to students without being too technical,” “I’m challenged to help students understand the energy cost of products they use every day,” and “I want to understand the progress Canada is making in being a responsible provider and consumer of energy.”

By all accounts, the Summer Institute was a resounding success. Scores on the post-tour survey indicated the tour achieved a variety of objectives:

  • Improved understanding about global energy demand.
  • Significantly increased knowledge about oil sands operations, including better knowledge about the differences between surface mining and in situ production.
  • Increased awareness about environmental practices, especially reclamation, wildlife protection, and the role of innovation and technology.
  • Increased understanding of the Canada-wide benefits of the oil sands industry.
Educators met with engineers, environmental scientists and community representatives during their tour of the oil sands. Photo by Tung Bui.

Participants offered numerous comments in the post-tour survey, such as:

  • “Every component was outstanding in helping me feel more confident about how to approach teaching about Canada’s energy development.”
  • “Everything was a great learning experience, especially hearing different perspectives.”
  • “A highlight was hearing from a variety of people working in and supporting the oil industry, from engineers and environmental scientists to community representatives.”
  • “This journey challenged my opinions, thoughts and knowledge. I cannot wait to share my findings with students and colleagues.”
  • “Incredible experience – I went in with no knowledge and came away with a lot of knowledge and a desire to learn more. I did not feel I was being pressured into a particular opinion.”

Sharing knowledge is an important component of the Summer Institute, so educators across Canada can benefit from knowledge gained by those who experienced the oil sands first-hand. Sara Black explains, “All educators who participated in our Summer Institute are required to submit a lesson plan to RCGS that they intend to implement in their classrooms this school year. These lesson plans will be posted to the Energy IQ website for any teacher to use. Teachers are also encouraged to hold workshops or similar events with their colleagues and peers to share what they’ve learned.”

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • ME
    Mike Elston Vice-President, Facilities, Royal Canadian Geographical Society
  • SB
    Sara Black Manager, Education Programs, Royal Canadian Geographical Society