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Economics PhD student awarded grants to create positive social impact through community projects

May 11, 2022

Economics doctoral student Minoru Higa always believed strongly in giving back to the community. While studying in South America, he built houses for low-income families and helped establish scholarships supporting disadvantaged students. His passion to help continues on here at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

Last month, he and Kelly Davila of the University of British Columbia were awarded funding from SFU's Student-Community Engagement Competition (SCEC) for their 'Math Walks' project. Together with their community partner, Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House, Higa hopes this project will spark ecological imagination and help people reimagine their relationship with the world.

"In these times of uncertainty dealing with the pandemic and recent climate change-related events, we wanted to help people reconnect with their environment and one way to do that is through math!" Higa goes on to say, "Most people associate math with school or remembering formulas but it is actually a part of our daily life."

Higa describes 'Math Walks' as an intentional walk that encourages participants to observe the world through a different lens and recognize that math is all around us, embedded in our surroundings. During these walks, which would take place in Vancouver and Surrey, participants would work on prompts like, 'What visual patterns can you see? Can you create a spiral with natural materials?'. They can jot down their findings through descriptions, drawings, or photographs, and then share their results with the group at the end of the walk.

This is not Higa's first community venture with SCEC. Both him and his partner Giuliana Lira received the 2019-20 Burnaby Grand Award for two projects, each focused on enhancing child development and educating newcomer families on Indigenous culture.

As parents and newcomers to Canada, Higa and Lira knew all too well how easy it is to become overwhelmed by deadlines and daily responsibilities. This was their motivation behind one of their projects, 'Empowering the Village to Connect with the Child'—to create a space where other parents can reconnect with their children through play and equip themselves with the tools to establish a positive family environment. 

"Early childhood development has remarkable long-term consequences in a child’s life and therefore, in our society. It takes a village to raise a child, and children learn through play," say Higa and Guzman. "The idea was to allow newcomer families to meet other community members with similar life stories to build their village, and help them build healthy physical, social, emotional, and spiritual relationships with their children."

In 2019 alone, a total of 29 families participated in the project, which included activities like dancing, interactive storytelling, kid-friendly yoga and healthy food exploring. These activities were well-received especially as families dealt with the stresses that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to bringing families closer by building a close-knitted community, the program also helped to reduce the sense of isolation that many newcomers often experience. 

Higa and Lira's second project 'Connecting Little Ones at Home to Indigenous Culture' is also aimed at newcomer families and their children but focuses on educating them on the Indigenous cultures of their new home country. "Coming from a country that used to be colonized, we empathize with the hardships the Indigenous peoples have experienced, and we are amazed by the recent efforts Canadian society has made to respect Indigenous culture. This is something that we would like our kids to learn."

As they continue to make plans for the project, Higa and Lira intend to use activities as a medium to introduce children to Indigenous culture and foster their curiosity to learn more. They also plan to incorporate oral traditions by inviting members of the Indigenous community to showcase their culture to the children through stories and music.