Austin Bercier, right, and Wylie Pietsch check under the hood after the ATV was converted to electric power in their capstone project at the Schulich School of Engineering.
Austin Bercier, right, and Wylie Pietsch check under the hood after the ATV was converted to electric power in their engineering capstone project. Riley Brandt photos, University of Calgary

May 31, 2023

Class of 2023: Aspiring engineer lifts Indigenous communities as he pursues dual degree at UCalgary

In student life and academic studies, Austin Bercier seizes opportunities to make a difference

A university education is a long hallway of defining moments. Three come quickly to mind for Austin Bercier, who is graduating in the Class of 2023 at the University of Calgary.

The first defining moment came at the end of his first year at the Schulich School of Engineering, as he was choosing an engineering specialty for second year. “At the very end of the form, there was a box to check off if you want to apply to do a dual degree, a Bachelor of Commerce in the Haskayne School of Business,” he recalls.

“I was like, business degree as well. That’s cool.  Six years, two degrees. That’s pretty good bang for your buck. So I just went for it.”

The move was life-changing. The double degree, including work experience in both tracks, broadened and reshaped how he thinks about his chosen profession. He found that the skills of collaboration, teamwork, project management and budgeting — emphasized in the business degree — complimented and reinforced the engineering themes of science, technology, and design.   

Austin Bercier

Austin Bercier

A chance meeting and a ripple effect

The second defining moment happened by “fluke,” he says. Bercier is a member of Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III. While volunteering at an Indigenous youth camp, he bumped into Jasmine McDermott, another Indigenous student who — like him — had just finished a year of studies at Schulich.

“We’re both Indigenous and we both felt like there’s got to be a better way to make these connections than just totally by chance at a one-off volunteer event.”

The two took the step of creating the Calgary Indigenous STEAM Students’ Association. Now, five years later, more than 50 students have benefited from the networking and extra-curricular activities made possible by the self-sustaining group of volunteers. “Basically the gist of the club is that we aim to create an inclusive community with other Indigenous students to promote Indigenous engagement in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM), while also providing avenues for professional development opportunities.”

Desire to give back to their communities

The second defining moment serendipitously led to the third. Knowing that the final year of their engineering degree would involve a major capstone assignment, applying academic concepts to solve a real-world problem, Bercier and McDermott threw themselves into capstone planning months in advance. “We met with about a half-dozen professors because we wanted our capstone to have some Indigenous inspiration, some way we could give back to our communities.”

Their capstone project, joined by four other students, converted a gas-fueled Kubota ATV to electric power so it could draw from solar energy off the grid in the far North. The project’s DIY focus was designed to be easily replicated by other small communities, using only off-the-shelf components available through Canadian supply chains. Praised for its practical ingenuity, and widely reported in the news media, the project also inspired in Bercier a commitment to incorporating Indigenous approaches in his career.

“That’s how my interest in environmental sustainability came in, not in saying goodbye to fossil fuels, but looking at ways to reduce our dependency and use other energy production avenues.”

Navigate the ambiguity and just execute

Bercier’s demanding schedule at university, coupled with steep learning curves, taught him to juggle multiple tasks and be flexible in setting priorities. “In high school, you’d like to get 100 per cent on everything, and then you come to university and it’s a rude awakening. You learn to deal with failure and realize that sometimes, good enough is good enough. In industry, problems are often not as well defined as you might think. You learn to deal with that and just execute.”  

Looking back, Bercier credits his teachers at St. Gabriel the Archangel School in Chestermere with nurturing his passion for math and science and encouraging him to attend university. “And I’ve had tremendous support through the years from the University of Calgary, especially through the Métis Scholars Entrance Award and the Métis Scholar Undergraduate Award, for four years in a row. That was huge.”

He’s now working full-time at Lauren Services in Calgary, a firm where he interned during his studies, as a mechanical engineering junior. With a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Bachelor of Commerce, Operations Management Concentration now under his belt, his next goal is obtaining professional engineering designation. And then? He can see himself returning to university some day for graduate studies, “probably in the MBA area. A few of the colleagues I work with have MBAs and I do look up to the skills that they have.”

Team members

Joining Schulich School of Engineering faculty Kerry Black, second from left, and David Wood, second from right, are capstone team members Alejandro Sulbaran, Austin Bercier, Jasmine McDermott, Natasha Eden, Wylie Pietsch and Marlin Sako.

Join our celebration as another class of enterprising University of Calgary students marks the milestone of graduation and begins making a difference in society, in fields such as health care, engineering, business and the arts. Spring Graduation and Convocation takes place May 29 to June 2, 2023. Learn more 

Read more inspiring stories about the accomplishments and journeys of the Class of 2023.

A note for soon-to-be UCalgary alumni: As you prepare to transition from student life, we encourage you to check out our Life Kit for Recent Grads — custom-built to inform you about the programs, benefits and services available to you as a member of the UCalgary alumni community.

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