Native American students are returning to their
roots to connect with engineering.
For your average high schooler, Sundays tend to be more
synonymous with sleep than they are with science. But on the sparse,
chilly plains of North Dakota, a growing number of teenagers are devoting
one Sunday a month during the school year—and two weeks of their
summer vacations—to learning about math, science, and engineering.
The students are part of the Tribal Colleges Collaborative Project—an
expanding program of summer camps, Sunday classes, and scholarships
aimed at encouraging North Dakota's young Native Americans to
pursue advanced degrees in science and engineering.
For these students, it's just a matter of returning
to their roots. Native Americans have a proud history of architecture,
agriculture, botany, engineering, astronomy, agriculture, and medicine—having
made strides in these areas long before Europeans even set foot on
the continent. "We're trying to help students identify
that their ancestors were scientists," says Carol Davis, vice-president
at Turtle Mountain Community College and the project's director.
The goal is to strengthen the pathways to math, science, and engineering
degrees for Native American students—paths rarely taken these
days. In 2001, less than 1 percent of all engineering degrees went
to Native Americans. Of the nearly 20,000 tenure-track engineering
faculty in the United States, 28 are Native American. Only two of those
28 are women.
The program—known informally among its creators
as the "Navy Project" because the Office of Naval Research
provided the initial funding—began in 1999 with 20 or so high
school students on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. It has since grown
to include 115 students on all five of the state's reservations
with funding from a number of resources, including NASA and the David
and Lucille Packard Foundation.
Davis has been thrilled by the program's success
so far, especially at her school where the number of participating
students has grown to nearly three times its original number. "Fifty-eight
kids came in on a Sunday afternoon to do science," she gleefully
remarks about one of the recent sessions at the school. "Isn't
that neat?" Davis attributes the program's growing status
among the teenagers to its social aspects, fun hands-on projects, and
the pizza lunches. The high schoolers don't need to have any
aptitude for math or science either; anyone who's interested
and enthusiastic can participate. "Out here, where there isn't
a whole lot of competition for student attention, the students just
love it," she says.
Davis recalls telling Turtle Mountain's president
about the previous weekend academy one late-January Monday morning
a few years ago. She says that he turned to her flabbergasted and said, "How
did you get high school students to come here and do math and science
on Super Bowl Sunday?"
Lured by the promise of pizza to one of the state's five tribally
controlled community colleges (a 100-mile round trip for some students),
the high school juniors and seniors spend five hours at monthly "Sunday
Academies." An interactive video network (IVN) connects the community
colleges with North Dakota State University (NDSU). Using this distance-education
technology, an NDSU faculty member will present the students with a
practical, day-to-day problem and some background principles on the
simple math, physics, chemistry, biology, or engineering that the students
will need to solve it. They then turn off the IVN and get to work on
a hands-on activity aimed at solving the session's puzzle. With
the help of tribal college faculty members, high school teachers, and
an NDSU faculty member that has traveled to each site, the students
use graphs, tables, and figures to display their results. Each keeps
a research journal of the work done during the sessions. At the end
of the day, everyone presents and discusses their results with one
another over the video network.
When the North Dakota educators conceived the Navy Project, they
knew they were going to have to go beyond fast food and science-is-fun
experiments. Little exposure to science and engineering in schools
and on the reservation was only part of what kept students from pursuing
those fields. "They may have the feeling that the science conflicts
with their cultural beliefs," says G. Padmana-bhan, chair of
the civil engineering department at NDSU and project co-director. To
counter this perceived alienation from science, each Sunday Academy
includes a talk by a local spiritual leader or community representative
connecting the day's topic to Native American culture. "The
unique spin on this is that we've kept it very culturally based," says
Davis. "It's not just a math and science program. It's
a math and science program that demonstrates to Native Americans that
you don't have to give up your culture to be involved in science.
Science is very much in tune with your culture."
When the students learned about buoyancy, the lesson included a talk
about canoes and the important role they played in early Native American
transportation and migration. The Sunday Academy on Newton's
laws of motion connected the flight of arrows to modern-day rockets. "We
spend a lot of time finding that connection," says NDSU's
The lessons aren't just historically significant, though. Steve
Davis, cultural instructor for the program at Turtle Mountain, says
he makes a point of weaving spirituality into the lessons. For example,
when the students learned about orienteering and ecology, the cultural
connection went beyond cataloging plants and their historical uses
to include the Native American belief that everything—animals,
plant, rocks—has a spirit. The local spiritual leader says, "Sometimes
science forgets about these things."
At NDSU—the only land-grant institution in a state where Native
Americans make up 5 percent of the population, according to the 2000
census—students who come from the reservation are a rarity. "When
I first came to NDSU I didn't know anybody who was Native Amercan," says
Jason Baker, a Native American senior majoring in civil engineering.
While Baker—who helped with some of the Sunday Academies—says
he's started to see more Native faces among the engineering students,
he is still struggling to start an American Indian Science and Engineering
Society (AISES) chapter at the university. Maintaining the minimum
required attendance at AISES meetings has been the biggest problem.
Baker says that he thinks a lot of students that come to the university
directly from the reservations experience culture shock. They leave
the relatively isolated reservations of a few thousand people for a
university of well over 10,000 in North Dakota's big city of
Fargo. Many get overwhelmed and leave. "The retention problem
is the biggest one," says NDSU's Padmanabhan.
Consequently, the Navy Project tries to steer its high school students
toward community colleges before they make the big leap to a four-year
university. Padmanabhan thinks the extra time and a stronger math,
science, and engineering background from the tribal colleges will make
the transition easier: "If they have at least a year or two at
the community college they feel comfortable and the retention here
will be higher." The students who take the next step to the community
college level can participate in a summer camp at NDSU where they work
on research projects at the university.
" I think it's the opportunity for students to experience
something different, something they've never had a chance to
do before," says Miles Pfahl, a math instructor at Turtle Mountain
who is connected to the project. "Basically, it just gives the
students an opportunity to get a taste of what's out there in
math, science, and engineering."
Pfahl used to teach high school math on the reservation, where he
saw half the student body drop out, "For most of the students,
it's a challenge just to graduate from high school." Three
thousand people live on the Turtle Mountain reservation in Belcourt,
N.D. The reservation is in a sparsely populated part of the state,
near the Canadian border. "We're about as far from the
major cities in North Dakota as you can be," he says. Unemployment
on the reservation hovers around 50 percent, most families live in
poverty, and the temperature in winter can dip well below -20 degrees.
Pfahl adds, "You can see completing a degree in the math and
science area—that's just not much of a thought."
Even with all these obstacles, Pfahl says he's amazed at how
well the project is doing. "It's almost mind-boggling to
see the growth of the program." He hopes that the other funds
will be enough to sustain it when the Naval Research grant runs out
next year. "They're just never going to get a chance to
pursue a future in math, science or engineering without opportunities
Bethany Halford is an associate editor of Prism.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.