Yankton Sioux Tribal members, Mia Fischer, (left), and DeShayla Heth work on putting together their telescope for the evening astronomy lesson and star gazing activity at the Black Hills State University campus. Both girls attend Marty Indian School.

Camp Boosts Science Literacy Among Native American Youth


The shortage of Native Americans in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields should not come as a surprise.

“I noticed that there weren’t many peers as I was a student at the undergraduate level that were Native, and when I was in graduate school; same thing,” Dr. Kent Smith, a Comanche associate professor of anatomy at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, said in a Native Times article in February. “There weren’t hardly any Native American graduate students. I didn’t have a single mentor that was Native American.”

But the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) is trying to change that with the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) camp. In June, 21 students from reservations in Nebraska and South Dakota attended the camp.

According to a UNMC press release, the students watched chemistry demonstrations, learned about wildlife forensics, took field trips to Wind Cave National Park and the mammoth dig site, and learned about ethnoastronomy—the study of contemporary Native astronomies according to The Center for Archaeostronomy.

The camp is one of the programs made possible by a $1.3 million grant UNMC was given starting in 2005 from the National Center for Research Resources, a division of the National Institutes of Health. The SEPA grant has been renewed and will include an expansion of programs.

The UNMC program is “aimed at strengthening the math and science curriculum among American Indian youth in Nebraska and South Dakota,” states a press release announcing the award renewal.

Through the recent renewal, high school students will be included with the implementation of summer research experiences, and two community garden initiatives will be started to boost health literacy among community members.

The first garden will be at Wagner Community School in Wagner, South Dakota and the other will be in Santee, Nebraska with the Santee Sioux Tribe.

“Community gardens have become a national movement with many thousands nationwide because of their capacity to support science and nutrition education for children, while at the same time promoting healthy eating and exercise for family members of all ages,” Dr. Andrew Jameton, a professor in the UNMC College of Public Health, said in the release.

Local libraries and the McGoogan Library at UNMC will also be brought into the mix to help provide health information to local communities through the free Consumer Health Information Resource Service, which includes journal articles, books, pamphlets and web resources.

“Reaching beyond the classroom to parents and communities is critical to the success of this project,” Dr. Maurice Godfrey, principal investigator on the grant and professor of pediatrics at UNMC, said in the release. “Community education programs will be designed to promote healthy living, increase health literacy and improve access to health information resources.”

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zacharyharshfield's picture
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A recent study of suicidal behavior in American Indian youth has improved researchers’ understanding of the problem in that population and helped them to recognize crucial differences in risk factors between those who live on and off reservations. Researchers at the Buder Center for American Indian Studies and the Comorbidities and Addictions Center at Washington University in St. Louis found that of about 400 American Indian youth aged 12 to 19 living on a reservation and in a nearby city, 30 percent reported having thought about or attempted suicide. The rate is high, but not entirely unexpected: A 2000 report by the Indian Health Service, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, showed that among American Indian youth, 33.9 per 100,000 commit suicide each year, which is 2.5 times the national rate for all youth. “Suicide is a profound problem for American Indians,” said Stacey Freedenthal, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., who is one of the researchers on the study and presented its findings at the annual conference of the American Association of Suicidology in Santa Fe in April.