“Space, not place”: A Geography Open Lab tech opens up about the human side to geography

As a lab technician in one of Douglas College’s Geography Open Labs, Sasha Djakovic takes on a unique teaching role in the Department of Geography and the Environment. Geography students use the Open Labs to explore everything from weather to topography to ecological damage. Sasha guides these students through using the lab’s tools, many of which he personally curates, for their assignments. Between this, cultivating a welcoming social space in the lab, aand much more, Sasha acts as an all-round source of support to the department’s faculty. 

Since starting at Douglas, Sasha’s portfolio has branched off from the Open Lab – though his research feeds back into it. He guest lectures in and out of the Geography department about Indigenous land rights. Last summer, he travelled to the Lil’wat First Nation’s territory to help uncover all kinds of topological data, using the Lab’s resources to analyze it through the lens of traditional Lil’wat stories and knowledge. 

What does it mean to be a lab technician at Douglas? 

The job title is deceiving. My priority isn’t the lab, but the students using it. We have the equipment – computers, data, maps – they need to complete their lab assignments. On top of that, I’m there to assist. Generally, my job is to make sure everyone’s happy, the equipment’s working, and the space is safe and all-inclusive. 

How does the Geography Open Lab support students? 

Geography has many human aspects. So, I cultivate a lab culture where every student feels they can freely express their feelings about what they’re learning. Most likely, they’re not the only one in the room with thoughts. That leads us to having great conversations as a class. On top of that, it’s not just a place to work. I’ve made a lounge area here, so students have somewhere to chill and eat lunch if they want. “It’s a space, not a place” – we use that phrase a lot in geography. 

How do your guest lectures engage with Indigeneity? 

I’m a big advocate for Indigenous rights and title. I’ve been on the frontlines with activism, where I’ve learned a lot, and I have a background in mapping Indigenous territory. We live in a complex time and place here in B.C., on unceded territories. It makes for a lot of conflict and issues both inside and outside of First Nations. So, in my lectures, I like to showcase that and try to summarize who owns rights to what.  

Tell us about your work with the Lil’wat First Nation. 

In the summer, I travelled to the Lil’wat First Nation’s territory as part of an archaeological dig. Unbelievable things have emerged from that. For example, using the Geography department’s drone, I’ve acquired detailed imagery of the archaeological sites, like the depressions where pit houses and cache pits are. Of course, I’m sharing all the data with the Lil’wat First Nation. Anything I’m taking, including knowledge, from their territory is theirs.  

How will you translate this data to Geography labs? 

A related project I’ve been working on is a lab session that weaves traditional Indigenous ecological knowledge with Western-based science. I acquired a story from the Lil’wat First Nation, the Copper Canoe story once told by Charlie Mack, which describes how landscapes form and behave. In this story, there’s a mountain that crosses a river “at will,” at any time. Then the copper canoe sails through the river and tames it. After learning of it, I examined this mountain geographically, and it’s very prone to erosion. There are crazy avalanche tracks. And using the tech in the Open Lab, like our AR sandbox and Google Earth, you can put yourself in this valley, seeing how this mountain almost hangs over the river. You can prove that this mountain really can block the river at any time.   

How are students responding to this type of learning? 

It’s been great so far. The students are way ahead of their time, even ahead of us in the department, when it comes to Indigenous knowledge and understanding Indigenous rights and title. We had students directly involved in our work with the Lil’wat First Nation this summer, and then those who are working with this data in the Open Lab right now. Of course, doing this work in the classroom is delicate, because I don’t want to take or appropriate. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes – but that’s the process, as is doing the work to identify and fix them. 

What comes next for the Geography Open Lab? 

Geography is ever-flowing – I’m constantly coming up with new technology and labs to incorporate. Mainly, I want to continue strengthening our relationship with the Lil’wat First Nation. I want to keep collaboratively gathering this new data from their lands, and with their consent, bring more of this traditional ecological knowledge into our lab work.  

What is your advice for students interested in studying geography at Douglas? 

Geography is the science of everything. It finds a way to touch on every other subject. There’s a physical side, but people don’t realize there’s also that very different human side – though both involve a lot of crying. So you can go down a lot of different routes career-wise. I always suggest trying out two introductory geography courses, one more physically focused and one more humanities-based. That’ll tell you if it’s the right fit for you. 

Want to learn more about the Associate Degree in Geography and the Environment? Learn more at the Douglas College website.

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