Prism Magazine - March 2003
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- By Bethany Halford     

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 Padmanabhan.

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 like this."


Bethany Halford is an associate editor of Prism.
She can be reached at

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