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Ouje-Bougoumou’s Malachi Coonishish honoured at prestigious science fair

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 6, 2023

From humble beginnings at his school’s science fair in Ouje-Bougoumou, Malachi Coonishish took his project all the way to the Canada-Wide Science Fair (CWSF) in Edmonton, where he received the Renewable Energy Award for his project, How to Increase Solar Energy Output.

“Joining a simple science fair opened a new mindset for the opportunities you’re given at a young age for becoming something important,” Malachi told the Nation. “I just needed a science project to bring up my grades – it’s brought me pretty far.”

The 17-year-old student credited his science teacher at Waapihtiiwewan School, Pouria Tabaeini, for sparking his idea of a renewable energy project that was honoured at the fair, held May 14-19. While Tabaeini provided the solar panel and some other materials, Malachi worked diligently after hours to discover a method for reflectors to improve a panel’s output by 25%.

“His creativity and intelligence are reflected in the design, the first time someone thought of putting the reflector completely around the solar panels,” said Tabaeini. “He tested different angles to see what would give the highest voltage reading. It shows that if you put in the dedication and effort, Cree students can be very successful.”

Malachi persevered with this project even after two teammates quit, realizing that it has the potential to boost solar power productivity around the globe for places that don’t receive as much sunlight. His motivations extend to the challenges faced by northern communities.

“From every four solar panels you build, you basically get a free one with my idea,” Malachi explained. “The more up north you go, the more expensive things cost. Our area doesn’t get as much sunlight as cities down south. Increasing the area size with something reflective directs more sunlight into my solar panel at a certain angle.”

A month after winning his local science fair, Malachi’s success at the Cree Nation’s regional event in Chisasibi earned him a place at the Quebec Indigenous Science Fair in March. This annual gathering held primarily in Indigenous communities since 1998 has been hosted by Université Laval in Quebec City the past two years. 

Among other Cree students at the provincial fair, Grade 5 students Angel MacLeod and Lennox Swallow determined the water pipes at Voyageur Memorial School in Mistissini are not clean and should be fitted with filters. Nemaska’s Jay Tanoush and Kayley Visitor studied insulation while Rory Henry Felstead and Kristopher Neeposh Decoursay studied the colours of fire.

“If you want someone to be interested in science, you just give them a problem that touches their day-to-day activities,” said the event’s principal organizer Normand Voyer. “When a project is meaningful to you, you put your heart into it and go deeper. The objective is to spark something, show the possibilities. That type of experience really impacts your trajectory in life.”

More and more people interacted with Malachi’s project at each science fair, with respected engineers, chemists and biologists asking about his work. Voyer said that judges were particularly impressed by Malachi’s presentation skills. Malachi was very surprised when he won second place, behind Rosalie Dubé from Manawan, earning him an expenses-paid trip to Edmonton.

While he admitted to not being a “big travel person,” Malachi loved being in Alberta, where he visited attractions like the local science centre and gigantic West Edmonton Mall. The CWSF even organized a science activity at the University of Alberta, where Malachi thought it would be cool to study one day.

“I loved the whole time being there,” said Malachi. “I’m told a lot that my idea is very simple but very innovative. There were only about 15 to 20 of us who were Indigenous of the 396 participants. We should send more Indigenous kids – I want them to see what potential we have.”

He was accompanied by his grandmother Linda Coonishish, who was impressed by the event’s organization and the intelligence demonstrated by the budding scientists. She was happy to see Malachi making new friends, bonding with the Québécois contingent striving to communicate with him in English.

“His solar panels were a little damaged on the airplane,” she explained. “We had to do a bit of running around to find lights. He managed to reconnect everything and get it working just in time for when the judges were walking around.”

The fair attracted more than 7,000 visitors to the Edmonton Convention Centre in the first two days of public viewing, with more than 10,000 online visitors. Elizabeth Chen and Arushi Nath earned the top awards for projects on alternative cancer treatments and planetary defense. 

Malachi’s Renewable Energy Award was one of about 150 prizes presented to students ranging from Grades 7 to 12, with some advancing to an international competition in Brazil. Each participant earned a future university scholarship – they need only declare they attended the CWSF in their application. 

“We would like to congratulate Malachi on this fantastic achievement for his project on renewable energy,” posted the Grand Council of the Crees. “May it push you to continue to excel and explore science and technology. The Cree Nation is proud of you and celebrates with you.”

Proudly representing the Cree Nation in traditional clothing, Malachi was inspired by the ingenuity of the country’s youth. While he was already considering pursuing medical studies, he’s now more open to becoming a scientist or engineer. He believes “in our area, we could use more big jobs like doctors or engineers.”

With one more year of secondary school, Malachi is already brainstorming ideas in the hope of reaching the 62nd CWSF, to be held at Ottawa’s Carleton University in May 2024. He’s also hopeful his success inspires other Cree youth to persevere in their studies.

“I have one more chance before I go to college,” said Malachi. “I’m thinking about improving my science project and about creating a whole new one. Everyone loved my idea and hope I go even further. Every day, people tell me congrats – that’s what I love about being up North.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.