05/12/2012 08:00 EDT | Updated 07/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Inside Education Oilsands Tours For Teachers: Researcher Questions Impartiality Of Industry-Backed Program


EDMONTON - An industry-funded program that offers high school teachers a six-day trip to Fort McMurray to "experience Alberta's oilsands" is being expanded across the country.

While the operators of Inside Education say they work hard to ensure their programming offers plenty of balance, others say informing educators about controversial developments shouldn't be left to those with most to gain from them.

"It's always billed as being free, but what's being sold is a positive image of an industry that's controversial," said Andrew Hodgkins, a University of Alberta researcher who has published on the issue of corporate involvement in education.

Inside Education, a non-profit charity backed by Alberta's corporate A-list, is offering selected teachers an all-expense-paid trip to Fort McMurray this summer to get a first-hand look at the huge developments powering both Canada's economy and many of its public debates.

The successful applicants will tour both open-pit mines and in-situ developments. They'll meet with various company officials and researchers working on oilsands operations. Meetings are planned with local First Nations and environmental groups such as the Pembina Institute, said Inside Education director Steve McIsaac.

Inside Education is "providing background to these teachers so they can take a balanced look back to their communities," he said. "It's kind of a train-the-trainer kind of approach."

Inside Education has been around since 1985, formed by government, industry, education and non-profit representatives. It was originally called Friends of Environmental Education Society of Alberta.

The group has offered oilsands programs for years and about 200 Alberta teachers have taken advantage of it. This is the first year it's being offered to teachers outside the province.

McIsaac is aware of the suspicion likely to accrue to industry-funded educational programs. Inside Education faces it head-on.

"The very first thing we do is we let our teachers know this is where the support came from," he said. "It's right up front.

"Nobody has veto powers over our programs. We provide a platform for as many different perspectives as we possibly can, and that's increasingly difficult."

Still, said Hodgkins, the overall tenor of the program is likely to be positive.

"They're selling an ideology," he said. "These tours are very technocratic — 'If there's a problem, we've got the technology to fix that problem.'

"What it precludes is critical questioning: Should we be mining? Where are the profits going?"

The researchers the teachers meet, for example, are more likely to be engineers than biologists. A spokesperson for the Pembina Institute confirmed its staffers have occasionally addressed Inside Education audiences, but are not otherwise involved in the program.

Teachers in the program are also offered curriculum materials developed by Inside Education to take back to their classrooms. Because the use of third-party materials is not tracked and is left up to individual teachers, there's no way of knowing how popular they are.

Inside Education's programs certainly are.

McIsaac said 100 teachers applied for 20 spots in last fall's program on oilsands innovations. Inside Education's website offers testimonials from grateful participants.

"Our oilsands programs are in high demand from teachers," McIsaac said.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with industry involvement in environmental education, said Hodgkins. They just shouldn't be the only ones doing it.

His research suggests that Ontario's school curriculum has more oilsands-related content than Alberta's.

"Governments don't want to fund environmental education in schools," he said. "When industry is funding education, you're never going to get the whole picture."

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