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+ By Mary Lord
+ Illustration by I-Shan Chen
+ Illustration by I-Shan Chen


Native American colleges blend ancient culture and modern science to brighten students' prospects.

No one could confuse Fort Berthold Community College with Cal Tech. Housed on the windswept Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation’s territory in New Town, N.D., this isolated tribal school serves some of America’s most disadvantaged students. Yet it is a hotbed — perhaps even a model – of innovation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

Inside a gleaming science and technology center, erected where trailers once stood, students prepare for careers while drawing on a native culture rich in observation and stewardship of the natural environment. Classes in botany and water management are infused with agricultural traditions, like Juneberry cultivation, recounted by tribal elders. “Culture is part of our mission,” explains Clarice Baker-Big Back, Fort Berthold’s vice president of academics. “We’re just trying to control our own destiny.”

Fort Berthold is one of several dozen institutions serving native peoples from the Great Plains to the Aleutians to Hawaii that are percolating with fresh approaches to STEM teaching and learning as part of the National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP). Whether it’s environmental science contoured to such community needs as wild rice cultivation and local lake pollution or courses in science education to boost the ranks and effectiveness of Native American STEM instructors, “a lot of great things are happening because of the interface between traditional and Western approaches to science,” says Al Kuslikis, STEM associate at the Alexandria, Va.-based American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Launched in 2001 as part of a White House initiative to improve education and economic opportunity for America’s indigenous populations, TCUP aims to foster and support growth and development among the nation’s tribal colleges as well as those serving Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians with enhanced STEM instruction and outreach. The obvious need comes through in a recent UCLA study, which showed that just one-fifth of Native American college students who want a STEM degree actually get one in five years.

Even the ultimate achievers start from behind. Kody Ensley, a junior earning a double bachelor’s in computer engineering and information technology at Salish Kootenai College (SKC) on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Pablo, Mont., thought he had emerged well prepared with a 3.2 GPA from the local high school. While he indeed had great logic and lab skills, it took a lot of time in solo “self-remediation” to plug the math gaps that kept him from pursuing his passion for robotics and programming. Even then, he’s had to “fight tooth and nail” in every math class. “It took an extraordinary amount of time to learn what I should already have known, including basic fractions and multiplication,” says Ensley, who currently is wrestling with differential equations after completing a 16-week internship working on humanoid robots at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Bob Madsen, TCUP research director and instructor at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Mont., reckons 70 percent of his Northern Cheyenne students need basic math, meaning addition and subtraction. “We’re happy when we get at least some algebra background,” he says. Adds SKC’s science chair Tim Olson, “Where students are and where engineering begins, there’s a big gap there.”

TCUP aims to improve students’ chances. Grants of up to $2.5 million over five years fund an array of projects, from institutional capacity to faculty development and K-12 outreach, with the colleges themselves “really driving the agenda,” says TCUP director Jody Chase. The $13 million-a-year investment has yielded what Chase calls “stellar advances.” A 2008 outside review found that after three years, the earliest 17 TCUP schools had seen a 19 percent jump in graduates and a 26 percent increase in students pursuing STEM degrees.

Those pioneering hundreds represent a sea change in the prospects for indigenous communities afflicted with poverty, health woes, unemployment, and dropouts at levels rarely seen off the reservation. Kuslikis’s consortium, which represents tribal colleges, reports increased STEM engagement, participation, and achievement — including a growing cadre of graduates studying science and engineering at mainstream universities. Other tangible benefits: high-speed Internet for the community surrounding Navajo Technical College in Arizona; a science center at Oglala Lakota College on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where 8 in 10 adults lack jobs, that includes an Environmental Protection Agency-certified water-quality testing lab; calculus taught by phone to icebound Native Alaskan villages; and support groups for struggling Native Hawaiian first-generation college students.

LEFT: At work on an electronics project at Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu. Below: Students at Fort Berthold Community College in North Dakota learn bow-and-arrow physics.

Stars and Wild Turnips

In the continental United States, TCUP’s target is some 36 tribally chartered colleges on federally recognized reservations, most of them two-year institutions with open enrollment. These schools were created in the 1960s to preserve Native American culture and prepare students for reservation jobs; thus, cultural heritage is at the heart of each institution’s mission. “The uniqueness here,” says Steve Dupuis, an NSF fellow and TCUP Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation manager at SKC, “is that it’s culturally adaptive education.”

Fort Berthold Community College, for instance, runs native-science summer camps for high school seniors and prospective STEM majors. Math concepts are honed doing archery and playing math Jeopardy. Geology means examining the stratified banks of Lake Sakakawea reservoir from a boat. Students learn to take scientific water samples but also to identify local plants, pick wild turnips, and learn the constellations through traditional “star stories.” As for biology, few lab assignments could top skinning a deer or butchering a buffalo. When scientists in 2005 began mapping the wild rice genome, instructors at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College in Hayward, Wis., created a “tribal learning community model” that infused the curriculum with biotechnology-related material and organized conferences on biotechnology’s scientific, social, ethical, and economic impact on tribal culture.

Schools serving other native peoples find a similar approach works. At Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, a community-wide effort to honor the ancestral stewards of the “ahupua’a” (watershed) by ridding the local bay of invasive algae has helped boost the proportion of Native Hawaiians in STEM from 10.5 percent to 14 percent. Cultural relevance is “a big grabber” for students and “makes it easier for them to take risks,” says STEM outreach coordinator Keolani Noa. She reminds those who claim they’re bad at math that their ancestors navigated the Pacific on their knowledge of stars and winds. Math and electrical engineering majors are building underwater robots with photo-sensors to document the return of native flora; others are making biofuel and flocking to ecology courses. Such “high context” learning has been “transformative,” says Prof. John Rand, Kapi’olani’s STEM director. “What’s best practices for Native Hawaiian students is best practices for every student.”

The latest TCUP awards stress the E in STEM. Formally known as the Pre-Engineering Education Collaboratives (PEEC), the idea emerged from a workshop sparked by a casual conversation between NSF officials and their tribal college partners five years ago about why so few American Indians and Native Alaskans pursued engineering. “Being hard and being irrelevant, I think, turned people off,” concludes Michael Reischman, NSF’s deputy assistant director for engineering. “One of the most onerous reasons” tribal college graduates founder in mainstream universities, he adds, is because “there is no accommodation for cultural identity.” The new collaborations inject science courses with real-life experiences that address community needs. In Hawaii, the path may run from ocean ecology to electrical or bioengineering, while Montana’s tribes need civil engineers to build roads and operate power plants. They also identify successful practices for moving tribal college students into mainstream universities. These might include online teaching, assigning small teams to collect water samples in lieu of midterm exams or creating mini-modules so struggling students can drop back, learn the material, and rejoin the cohort.

Fort Berthold Community College’s PEEC partnership collaboration with North Dakota State University builds on an 11-year collaboration to develop off-reservation STEM opportunities for native students. Engineering seemed a natural fit with reservation culture — and a natural motivator. So is the prospect of jobs. The American Indian Student Engineering Society identified 128 job classifications for people with engineering degrees, including such locally relevant ones as natural resources manager.

Ultimately, says NSF engineering directorate’s Reischman, “success in the big picture [of the PEEC program] is graduating an engineer.” Still, TCUP as a whole has opened up opportunities that provide a powerful leg up for tribal college students. Nothing, Chief Dull Knife’s Bob Madsen says, compares with the confidence and competence his students have gained conducting research, starting with conquering invisible psychological barriers like staying in a hotel for the first time.

The NSF imprimatur has enabled TCUP participating schools to attract additional federal money from outside the foundation. Chief Dull Knife College, for instance, “has pulled in a lot of other money” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, and other agencies that paid for a chemistry lab and more staff, Madsen says. On his wish list: renovating an engineering lab and hiring full-time tech help.

Can the TCUP model be replicated in other minority-serving programs? “Success breeds more success,” says Caesar Jackson, program director in NSF’s Division of Human Resource Development. “This STEM education exercise is pushing our knowledge in terms of educating students, period.”





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