Native American knowledge, western science to be integrated in classes

Editor’s note: story updated Oct. 4.

Native American ecological knowledge and western science will be integrated in some University of Maine science courses, with the goal of implementing the methods nationwide.

With a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant titled INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science), tribal and UMaine collaborators will develop science courses that utilize Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and western science to increase Native American student participation in college and career STEM fields.

The approach builds on research that suggests complex challenges are best addressed through networked communities focused on finding solutions through common goals and shared resources.

The approach makes sense says Darren Ranco, the project leader, associate professor of anthropology, chair of Native American Programs at UMaine and faculty fellow at the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.

Ranco says it’s affirming for Native American students to see themselves in their courses. And incorporating culturally relevant educational methods results in Native American long-term participation in sciences.

The project is needed, Ranco says, adding that what has been done hasn’t been working. Native Americans have the lowest participation in STEM college courses among all minority groups.

In announcing the grants, France Córdova, NSF director and an astrophysicist, said that fostering inclusive participation fuels excellence.

“Broadening participation in STEM is necessary for the United States to retain its position as the world’s preeminent source of scientific innovation,” she said.

For the UMaine project, Native Cultural Knowledge Keepers and Elders will come together with university faculty members John Daigle, associate professor of forest recreation management; Mindy Crandall, assistant professor of forest landscape management and economics; and Shaleen Jain, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The project titled Wabanaki Youth in Science (WaYS) Program to Bridge inclusion in Post-Secondary Education Through the Sciences, will develop STEM education methods and practices that can be replicated around the country.

“It’s only possible because the tribes are working collaboratively with us,” says Ranco.

An integrated program in place in Maine for middle and high school Native American students — WaYS (Wabanaki Youth in Science) — already has had a positive impact.

Since WaYS was instituted in 2013, there’s been a 15 percent increase in the number of Native American students enrolled in STEM fields at UMaine, says Ranco.

“This [project] is a clear extension of the pipeline at the University of Maine.”

WaYS seeks to promote the legacy of Native American environmental stewardship to indigenous youth and interest them in pursuing science, technology, engineering or mathematics in college and as a career.

WaYS is successful because it’s a year-round, long-term, multipronged, community-based program, says tish carr, WaYS program manager.

“It’s a good model. It’s unique. I hope we can emulate it at the next level,” she says. “Students have the chance to develop rapport and continuity.”

Cultural knowledge keepers and natural resource professionals come together at weeklong WaYS summer Earth camps — at Schoodic Point, along the shores of Cobscook Bay in Trescott and in the shadows of Katahdin Mountain.

Native American youth engage in hands-on learning, including weaving baskets while learning about brown ash tree identification and habitat. This learning experience grew from a collaborative research project based at UMaine’s Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions that focused on brown ash resources and the invasive emerald ash borer.

Participants also have utilized compasses and forest tools, examined medicinal and edible saltwater plants and explored tidal ecology and climate change issues as they relate to fish.

And attendees have participated in mini-camps throughout the year that incorporate tapping maple trees, beading, hiking, shelter-building, botany, snowshoeing, foraging, fire building, ice fishing, leadership training and archaeology.

WaYS provides for internships for Native American school-age youth to work with their tribal Department of Natural Resource offices as well as the University of Maine, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

TEK programs for elementary and middle schoolers are offered at tribal after-school programs and American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) programs are offered at area clubs.

“TEK is a science; it’s just as important,” says carr. “Changing the culture will strengthen understanding. [TEK] needs to be recognized and acknowledged. It’s beneficial to Native and non-native youth.”

In addition to WaYS, partners are the tribal Salish Kootenai College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Maine Indian Education and the current NSF INCLUDES Design and Development Launch Pilot project at the University of Maine — the Stormwater Research Management Team (SMART).

In 2016, Mohamad Musavi, director of SMART INCLUDES and associate dean of the UMaine College of Engineering, was one of the first recipients of an NSF INCLUDES grant — nearly $300,000. He and others collaborated on a project titled Creating a Diverse STEM Pathway with Community Water Research.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777