Supporting a New Generation of Native Scientists

posted January 23, 2017

Each year, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) hosts a one-of-a-kind, national conference focused on advancing the work of Native scholars in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. This past November, seven Red Cloud students had the chance to travel from the vast prairie of Pine Ridge to the city of Minneapolis to be a part of it. They joined over 1,800 professionals, educators, and students to learn about cutting-edge research directly from Native pioneers in science, who have achieved success in a field where they are still severely underrepresented. The experience left each student inspired, determined, and more prepared than ever to pursue their dream of a career in the STEM world.

For Red Cloud senior Stephanie Emery ‘17, one of the three Red Cloud students who presented their own original research at the conference, being at AISES was an opportunity of a lifetime.

“Attending the AISES conference meant so much to me because it gave me insight into different STEM fields and allowed me to see just how many different careers in the field there actually are. Having the chance to see so many successful Native Americans in that particular area really motivated me to work harder to achieve my goals. When I presented my research, I had a nice conversation with a fellow Native presenter from Hawaii. We exchanged information about our heritage and cultures—and being able to connect with another Native who has a similar passion for science and research really made my heart happy,” said Emery.

“Being from the reservation makes it difficult to see myself doing great things, so having the opportunity to present at a national conference made me realize that I am not closed off to the world,” she continued. “I truly believe that Red Cloud has helped me prepare for opportunities, such as presenting at AISES, by exposing me to more challenging science and math and by always pushing me to reach my full potential.”

Over the last decade, Red Cloud’s team of educators has been working to support a growing number of students, just like Stephanie, who have discovered a passion for science and math. Teachers like Katie Montez, the current chair of Red Cloud’s science department who led the AISES group this year, have been focused on creating unique opportunities—both inside the classroom and out—geared toward students who have expressed an interest in pursuing careers in the STEM fields. They have expanded the curriculum to include new and more innovative and advanced courses in the sciences. They’ve purchased new lab equipment so that students can get more hands-on experience. And faculty introduced a range of extracurricular activities, from afterschool programs and field trips to family nights, all focused on expanding students’ knowledge of science.

For Katie, the overarching goal of this work is to make sure every Red Cloud student has the educational foundation to pursue a career in the STEM fields—as well as the confidence to know they can succeed. Experiences like attending the AISES conference, she explains, can make all the difference in the world.

“Pine Ridge is often characterized by its deficits rather than its strengths, and I often feel our students are discouraged by that. So bringing them to this national conference of accomplished Native scientists—an event that really celebrated the relationship between scientific discovery and Native culture and identify—was an eye-opening and empowering experience for all our students,” said Katie.

“They got to meet Native mentors and peers who all share their love for science, and to feel a real sense of belonging in that community,” she continued. “This was a completely new experience for them, but they had the confidence to dive right in, attend complex sessions, ask questions, and really expand their knowledge on so many levels. And they’ve returned to campus with a more defined sense of purpose and excitement about pursuing advanced studies, and possibly careers, in science and engineering.”

Red Cloud educators like Katie are keenly aware of the barriers facing Native students who want to enter the STEM fields. According to the National Science Foundation, Native American students make up less than one percent of those earning degrees in science and engineering. To confront that reality, Red Cloud has leveraged two significant grants from the Toyota USA Foundation and funding from a number of other donors to make targeted investments in math and science education.

The results of those investments can be seen both on campus and off. Today Red Cloud students have access to more up-to-date textbooks and sophisticated computer equipment. They can take STEM-related courses that go beyond basic biology and physics, on everything from robotics to sustainable living. In Red Cloud’s on-campus greenhouse, they gain hands-on experience with environmental science: elementary students learn the basics of how plants grow, while high school students are exposed to the science of solar and renewable energy. And students are able to connect with mentors through field trips, internships, and a visiting Native scientist series that brings accomplished Native STEM professionals to campus.

This work, according to Superintendent of Schools Walt Swan Jr., has done wonders to fuel student achievement.  

“Because of the investments we’ve been able to make in science education, we have seen our students thrive in so many new ways,” said Swan. “In the classroom, we’re seeing our students engage more deeply in science lessons, and master the most complex math concepts. Beyond the classroom, many of our high school students are taking part in competitive internship programs at the South Dakota School of Mines, the National Institutes of Health, and many more. Last year more than 30 percent of our graduating seniors planned to pursue a degree in the STEM field. And although there’s still a lot of work to be done, that gives us confidence that the world is going to see many more Native scientists and engineers in the very near future.”

With all that has been done so far to expand science education at Red Cloud, Katie has no plans to stop. She and her science department colleagues want to do more to increase parents’ understanding of the importance of STEM education. They hosted a successful family night in the fall—telescopes were set up for parents and children to watch a meteor shower together—and they hope to host another this spring. In addition, staff are working to organize an evening event where students present their own research on critical topics—like how depression affects the brain—to bring families together to learn. And the school is always looking for new locations for field trips: next on the list is the Sanford Underground Research Facility, a former mine where students can work alongside scientists to explore the latest discoveries in geology.

Above all, Katie wants to give her students the strongest foundation possible—and all the tools they need to pursue their dreams in science.  

“It’s so important to encourage young Native scientists because they don’t see enough of their peer mentors. So we need to encourage them as young students in high school, and support them in college and into graduate programs, so that ultimately we’re creating a new generation of Native scholars in the STEM fields,” said Katie. “Science requires resilience—it demands a willingness to try new ideas again and again until you ultimately find a solution. And growing up on Pine Ridge, our students absolutely develop that kind of resilience and strength. There’s really no limit to what they can do.” 

Join us in congratulating our students and alumni who participated in this year's AISES conference: Marilyn Frank, Connor Richards, Tia Janis, Stephanie Emery, Stevie Cross Dog, Payton Sierra, Sadan Bettelyoun and alumni Savannah Jensen & Randy Hughes.

Photos © Red Cloud Indian School


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