Courtesy Colella Digital
Mahpiya Spotted Tail shows someone her presentation at the 2016 Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM in late February.

STEM Projects Take Two Native Students to DC

Tanya H. Lee

Washington, D.C., is a long way from South Dakota, but two high school students from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe made that trip in February thanks to their accomplishments in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Mahpiya Spotted Tail, a junior at Saint Francis Indian School, and Ben Whiting Jr., a senior at White River Alternative School, were invited to participate in the 2016 Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation.

“It was a good experience,” says Ben. “I’ve never done anything like that before. I was pretty honored to be accepted to the National Science Foundation conference.”

The conference, for college undergraduate and graduate students, is designed to help participants develop their communication skills and prepare for careers in the sciences. A small component of the conference involved 11 high school students who were invited to present posters about their STEM research projects.

Ben Whiting Jr., presented his team’s poster at the 2016 Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM in late February. (Courtesy Colella Digital)

For Mahpiya and Ben, that meant presenting the research they had done involving air quality monitoring and energy audits of tribal housing at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation as part of a CU-Boulder-run summer program for American Indian students led by engineering Professor John Zhai.

CU-Boulder ran its Sustainable Building Research Experience and Mentoring program for a third and final year during the summer of 2015. The 12 students who participated in last summer’s program learned about sustainable building practices and experienced life on a college campus for a week before traveling to the reservation in Montana to assess energy use and indoor air quality in stick-built and straw bale homes. Back in their own communities, the students worked in teams to write up their research results and develop posters to show what they had found.

Mahpiya took 4th place for her poster. “I was really prepared for Washington and represented us there and I took fourth place,” she says.

In addition to her 4th place win at the conference, Mahpiya Spotted Tail won 2nd place at the 8th Annual Lakota National Invitational Business Plan Competition in Rapid City, South Dakota, in December. Her business plan was based on what she had learned during the CU-Boulder program she attended in the summer of 2015. (Courtesy Colella Digital)

But the real prize for her was being able to tell people about what is happening on the reservation. “One of my main goals,” she says, “was to go out to Washington and show how people struggle on the reservation, and how much of an impact [environmental conditions have]. If we have mold growing in our homes, it leads to respiratory infections, sinus infections, and other [illnesses] that we can’t really cure if we don’t have a hospital and our hospitals are going to be getting shut down. So what is our next plan, what are we going to do, how are we going to prevent all of [these negative consequences of poor air quality] from happening?”

Will what she did matter? Yes, she says. “I got to go out and tell them. I got to represent my tribe and my high school. As long as I can go out there and show these people I am sure that I can make a difference.”

Mahpiya Spotted Tail and Ben Whiting Jr., met with National Science Foundation Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Program Manager Garie Fordyce. (Courtesy Leo Campbell)

Despite being only a junior at St. Francis Indian School, Mahpiya is going to graduate this spring. She’s been taking college classes at Sinte Gleska University after school, and some of those credits can count toward her high school diploma. A member of the National Honor Society and student council, as well as an athlete, she plans to study nursing at Western Dakota Tech in Rapid City, South Dakota, and hopes eventually to go back to CU-Boulder to learn more about energy auditing.

Ben, 18, is just a few credits away from graduating from White River Alternative School. He is interested in science but sees himself going into law enforcement when he graduates in order to support his child. “I’m trying to go into police training to become a highway patrol officer, because they say they’re look for highway patrol officers in South Dakota. I’ll go into the police for a couple years, then I want to go to Mitchell Technical Institute” in Yankton, South Dakota, which has a wide selection of programs in areas such as energy production and transmission, business, construction and manufacturing and health sciences. He hopes to get a scholarship.

Mahpiya is seen here during her presentation with Sohi Rastegar, Senior Advisor, Directorate for Engineering, National Science Foundation. (Courtesy Colella Digital)

Leo Campbell, Winnebago, field coordinator and instructor in the CU-Boulder program, accompanied the students to Washington. His focus was getting more STEM programs like the Sustainable Building Research & Mentoring Program into Indian country, a point that he had the opportunity to discuss with National Science Foundation personnel. He says he would encourage high schools and tribal colleges and universities to work with the NSF to find programs in which their students could participate.

RELATED: Science Can Set You Free! STEM Program Teaches Sustainable Building

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