Courtesy Wyatt Champion
Sydney Horse Looking, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, (left) and Marcus Littlewolf prepare their mold samplers by loading sterile petri dishes containing malt extract agar to culture mold captured from the air. Their designs were based around the Andersen Impactor, a reference microbial air sampler used by instructors.

Science Can Set You Free! STEM Program Teaches Sustainable Building

Tanya H. Lee

Eleven high school students and one recent college grad from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota are looking at homes in their community from a new perspective following their month-long participation in the Sustainable Building Research Experience and Mentoring program at the University of Colorado Boulder.

This STEM outreach program, funded by the National Science Foundation and the university, is headed up by John Zhai, a professor and researcher on building systems engineering at CU-Boulder. The program grew out of his work developing new, more efficient, sustainable building materials for houses.

Over the past three years Zhai and his colleagues have worked with 36 students and seven teachers from tribal communities, giving them hands-on experiences that included, this year, building a straw bale wall, making air quality monitors to identify mold in homes, doing energy audits, getting a taste of life on a university campus and having the opportunity to meet American Indian professionals in STEM fields.

The first week students stayed on campus where they went to seminars, met with faculty and were introduced to college-level research. “We pushed them to do research with an emphasis on doing things correctly, following protocols and being thorough,” Wyatt Champion, CU-Boulder graduate student and lead instructor for the program, said.

Bobbie Knispel, a teacher from Todd County High School who accompanied the students, said, “The program was a great tool for giving them a sense of what college life might be like.”

For the second week, students traveled to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana where they did energy audits under the instruction of Leo Campbell, Winnebago, a certified building analyst with the Building Performance Institute, and checked for mold in eight homes.

Champion says one of the best parts of the program was that “we were able to give back to the community by giving each home a report about how they could save energy by making simple repairs, and if their home was moldy, specifically which room and how they could fix that.”

Students then took their new skills back to their own reservation to look at housing conditions there and to do energy audits. Zhai said conserving energy is critical on reservations. “Residents don’t have to pay the construction costs for their homes, but they do have to pay the utility costs. In the past we have found utilities could be a significant expense, as much as one-quarter or one-third of a family’s income. If we can reduce utility costs, it would be a huge benefit to the tribal community.”

One way to do that is through energy audits, weatherization of existing homes, and giving people the information they need to make their homes more efficient. “Some of the most impoverished homes in the country are on Indian reservations,” Campbell said. “Utility prices are up 20 percent in the last few years. We need to make homes energy efficient.” That is especially true, he said, if tribes are going to pursue renewable energy development.

Another way is by designing houses to be energy efficient in the first place, said Zhai, who has been working on that challenge. One part of the solution is to create housing that accommodate people’s preferences. He said a survey on the Crow Reservation showed that people wanted large houses with four or five bedrooms and two bathrooms, rather than the two- or three-bedroom houses Zhai had been designing.

“Secondly, we have to look at the materials,” he said. “In the past we looked at materials that we commonly use in other settings, but here we want to look at some local materials, such as compacted earth block. People are interested in increasing their local economies by developing the materials locally rather than buying them somewhere else.”

“Also, we were interested to find out that houses on the reservation are often built by local people, by non-professionals. All the techniques we talk about today have professional contractors and installers to do the work. However, [on the reservations] they are working in their spare time, people volunteer to build a house, so we have to use technologies that non-professionals can build.”

That question of what people can do—human capacity—is one that Campbell sees as critical to programs such as this one. “We want to inspire [our students] to get into engineering. We need to bring more engineers into the BIA and onto reservations. We want to show that these things can be done; we’re doing them. We’re building human assets within tribal communities.”

And this program is succeeding in moving in that direction. Four or five students from previous years are already studying STEM subjects at colleges including Oglala Lakota College and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

The students who participated in this summer’s program will complete the posters describing their research this fall and submit them to NSF. If they make the grade, they will go to Washington, D.C. in February to present their work.

As for college, Zhai says, “Before this whole program I never realized the gap between universities and the tribal life of students and the students’ own understanding of college. As a professor, we know there’s a lot of resources available for tribal students, like university scholarships and fellowships. As universities we’re looking for somebody to support, to give them money.” One more reason programs like this one are so important.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
What a GREAT program! This is a practical approach to Native unemployment and education! It's a sad fact that many school districts that serve the Native population are in economically disadvantaged areas and often the quality of education students receive doesn't prepare them for life after high school. I'm particularly enthused that the students are being introduced to NDN professionals in science-related fields. Thank goodness for Native elders who care about future generations!