NASA embraces tribal colleges

Philip Chien
12/30/03

NASA announced a program to encourage more technically-oriented education at tribal colleges. In a press release NASA noted, "None of the 34 Native American tribal colleges scattered across 12 states offers a bachelor of science degree in Engineering. Lee Snapp of NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston is working hard to change that."

Snapp is an engineer who is half-way through a two-year assignment at the Salish Kootenai College at Pablo, Mont., on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Coincidentally Flathead is where NASA astronaut-teacher Barbara Morgan first worked as an elementary school teacher. Snapp has no Indian blood, but still chose to participate in the project. He said "I have no Native blood in me but appreciate the opportunity to serve at SKC."

The Flathead Reservation area has a total population of approximately 22,000 with 6,000 of Indian descent. Of that figure, 3,500 are enrolled members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes make up 16 percent of the total Flathead Reservation population and 59 percent of the total Indian population residing on the reservation.

According to NASA, Snapp is working with tribal colleges, government agencies, engineering societies and others toward establishing a common effort and goals to foster technical education, particularly engineering. There are many major colleges and universities with significant American Indian populations in their student bodies, including students enrolled in engineering and science courses. But Snapp hopes to increase awareness in technical fields within tribal colleges. Eleven of the 34 tribal colleges are involved in Snapp's efforts.

The distinction between tribal colleges and non-tribal colleges is important. "Tribal colleges are founded in Native cultures. They have different priorities and ways of doing business that must be honored," Snapp said. "Native culture is not always consistent with the way we do business at NASA, but we are working very well together. Reaching out to Native Americans by going to them is critical."

There are 34 tribal colleges in 12 states serving a total of about 26,000 students, 85 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level. The schools are located mostly on economically depressed, isolated Indian reservations.

Salish Kootenai College, where Snapp serves as the dean of engineering, offers degrees in Art, Business Management, Computer Science, Dental Assisting Technology, Early Childhood Education, Environmental Science, General Studies Liberal Arts, General Studies Math and Science, General Studies Psychology Program, Highway Construction Program, Human Services, Native American Studies, Nursing, and Office Professions - primarily vocational courses to give young American Indians the skills they need to enter the workplace.

Snapp's project hopes to establish an engineering degree course at one or more of the tribal colleges and a set of standards so students attending tribal colleges can ease their transfer to non-tribal engineering colleges or go on to post-graduate studies.

Snapp holds a bachelor's degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy and a master's in Astronautics from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He retired from the Air Force to join NASA in 1989.

At the Johnson Space Center Snapp works in the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office where NASA encourages and assists commercial companies who want to develop products based on NASA's inventions. Contrary to popular myth Tang, Teflon, and Velcro are not space program spin-offs. They were all used by the space program but were not invented by NASA - in fact all three pre-date the space program. On the other hand there are space spin-offs which are commonly available including cordless power tools which were originally designed for the Apollo moonwalkers.

Snapp said he is encouraged by what already has been accomplished. "This is an exciting, ambitious program. Johnson Space Center, Salish Kootenai College and its partners have taken leadership roles and will make substantial contributions in educating the next generation of engineers," he said.

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