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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo MARCH 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 7
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ON CAMPUS: A Different World
By Lynne Shallcross

Montana State’s College of Engineering wants to see more American Indian students enroll.

Floyd Azure grew up on the Fort Peck Indian reservation in the northeastern corner of Montana. Now, he’s studying mechanical engineering at Montana State University, a rarity considering the scant number of American Indians in the field.

In 2004, less than 1 percent of engineering degrees awarded in the United States went to American Indians. Of more than 22,000 engineering faculty members, fewer than 50 are American Indian. A host of cultural, geographic, educational and economic isues might explain why America’s first residents don’t pursue engineering. But a number of programs are popping up in an attempt to attract these students, including one at Montana State University.

In 2003, Montana State’s College of Engineering launched Designing Our Community, a program aimed at recruiting and retaining American Indian students. It’s one of nine new programs at public colleges and universities in western states that were funded by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The grants, totaling $10 million, are aimed at improving undergraduate engineering education and increasing the number of graduates.

Native American students visit the hydraulics lab on campus.

At Montana State, program directors say they’re pleased with the results they’ve already seen. Enrollment of American Indian students in the freshman class doubled from 10 to 20 between 2003 and 2004. Heidi Sherick, assistant dean for undergraduate programs and diversity in the College of Engineering, says the program, which includes 30 students, works because of the nurturing environment it provides.

The Hewlett grant helped the college fund a new minority student center where the students can go for tutoring, meetings, computers and just to “hang out,” Azure says. The grant also provides Azure and his peers with a monthly stipend to ease the financial burden of school.

With the closest reservation 200 miles away, outreach to high school students is both crucial and enormously challenging. “It is a heavy-duty job to be everywhere,” Sherick says. The Hewlett grant allows the college not only to visit high schools on Montana’s seven reservations but also to run workshops educating science and math teachers about engineering. In addition, the college hosts groups of prospective American Indian students on its campus to give them an inside look at studying engineering.

Before starting classes, freshman DOC students take part in a summer bridge orientation program, which then continues with weekly seminars throughout the school year. The topics range from how to build a strong résumé to visits from successful American Indian engineers, which Sherick says are very powerful for the students. “They basically say, ‘I can do it, so can you.’”

Lack of role models is one of the biggest barriers keeping American Indian students from engineering. That’s especially troubling considering the need for engineers on the reservations to help with issues like water quality and transportation, Sherick says.

Many American Indian students arrive on campus lacking some of the skills needed to make it through the tough curriculum. When Azure arrived at Montana State, algebra was a struggle. But with the support of the DOC program, Azure has completed all his math requirements and is considering a double major in engineering and math. Azure says he hopes to eventually take his skills back to his reservation in Montana. “I go back home nowadays, and I see endless opportunities for business and success for my people.”

Lynne Shallcross is associate editor for Prism.

 

 

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