David Spear
Salish Kootenai College hydrology students in the field.

STEM Programs Take Tribal Colleges Into the Future

Christina Rose

From robotics to the Mars Rover, tribal colleges are bringing Native students into the 21st century and beyond. Traditional knowledge and modern science are holding hands and leaping into the 21st century as tribal college students are excelling in STEM across the nation. STEM, or the fields Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, is a growing trend in tribal college programming.

These programs are now on the radar of the Secretary of Education, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Nuclear Security Administration, under the Department of Energy, all of which have taken an interest, and in some cases are partnering in the work that tribal college students are doing.

As a result of these partnerships, STEM programming in tribal colleges is booming. “Navajo Technical University is becoming a regional leader in many cutting edge technologies, including laser scanning, advanced manufacturing, and high performance computing. They have been doing all kinds of really cool things over the last six or seven years,” Al Kuslikis Sr., Associate for Strategic Initiatives at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, said. The NTU team has been very successful competing in mainstream STEM competitions. At this year’s SkillsUSA National Conference, students from NTU took home a bronze medal, two silvers, and a gold medal for the national championship in the category of Sustainable Solutions, which was awarded to Adriane Tenequer, industrial engineering major.

RELATED: NTU Students Win Seven Medals at SkillsUSA Competition

“There is also the College of the Menominee Nation, which has done well in national rocketry competitions involving institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Arizona State University,” Kuslikis said.

Kuslikis added that the Engineering Program at Salish Kootenai College is doing “some important work with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on a camera for the Mars Science Laboratory Rover mission” and “Institute of American Indian Arts students have been doing interesting work with the modeling and simulation folks at the Kennedy Space Center.”

With just under 1,000 students, Salish Kootenai College is one of 43 institutions in the United States that is participating with NASA by engineering a satellite to be used in studying climate change.

The science fields are more relevant and accessible today than they ever have been, according to Julia Goodfox, Pawnee, Haskell Indian Nations University’s Interim Dean of Natural and Social Sciences.

“Today we have more access to grants, and there are more internship opportunities for our students than we saw even 10 years ago,” she said.

The availability of funds and a growing interest in a sustainable environment is luring an increasing number of tribal students into these fields, and in tribal colleges, STEM programming is on the rise. From 2011-12, the last years for which data is available, 9 percent of tribal students majored in STEM programs; up from 8 percent in the previous five years. Many of the other important majors, such as careers in healthcare, are also science based.

Western science is not that fundamentally different from traditional Native knowledge systems, according to Kuslikis. “Local and traditional knowledge systems, typically taught in tribal college Native Studies programs, are becoming common topics in their STEM courses. There is a significant amount of effort being made to integrate traditional knowledge systems with Western science,” Kuslikis said.

For example, “Back in the late 1980s, Diné College faculty conducted extensive interviews with Navajo elders, healers, and other traditionalists to identify a learning paradigm consistent with traditional understanding of natural processes. What they came up with actually fits very well with Western thinking. That research led to an effort to incorporate what is referred to as Diné Educational Philosophy across the curriculum,” Kuslikis said.

Multiple tribal colleges are on board with the growing interest in sustainability and other environmental studies.  “This year, the College of Menominee Nation is holding their second regional climate change summit, Shifting Seasons: Building Tribal Capacity for Climate Change Adaptation. They have become an important resource to tribes in the area in developing sustainable climate change response strategies,” Kuslikis said.

Climate change has long been a focus at Haskell Indian Nations University, where Dr. Daniel Wildcat has been a leader in establishing the Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Working Group. The group meets twice a year and includes representatives from federal agencies involved with climate change such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and the U.S. Geological Survey. “There are a lot of partners working with tribal colleges on a whole range of issues, particularly within STEM,” Kuslikis said.

“It has been really great to tailor these different environmental research projects to the needs of the communities they impact. Other mainstream institutions are building partnerships starting at the tribal college, and it has been a great experience for tribal students doing field work,” reports Erica Newland, grants administration for AIHEC, referring to the EPA’s recently established ecoAmbassadors program. The program encourages ecoAmbassadors to green their campuses and promote environmental awareness.

Much of the funding that tribal colleges have used to establish their STEM programs has come from the National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program over the last 11 years. NASA has also been instrumental by providing internship opportunities and small, targeted grants for specific STEM improvement projects.

“This is a good time for tribal colleges in STEM. The colleges are establishing strong STEM programs by taking advantage of available programs and resources, and have formed enduring partnerships with federal agencies, mainstream higher education institutions and national STEM organizations,” Kuslikis said.

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