The ABCs of science education

Spring 2012 Red Cloud Country

Anatomy, biology and chemistry—as a teenager you either loved gathering around the high school laboratory tables to begin dissecting a frog, and couldn’t wait to mix a bunch of brightly colored chemicals in anticipation of a possible explosion… or you stood as far back as you possibly could as the smell of formaldehyde wafted over the classroom.

Either way, as the need for science education becomes more essential in the United States and abroad—and as a number of employers across the country increasingly search for graduates adept at knowledge far beyond periodic tables and basic botany—teachers at Red Cloud Indian School have worked relentlessly over the past few years to grow the school’s science offerings. The result? Students who have not only gotten over their dislike for those unfashionable laboratory goggles, but graduates hungry to take their knowledge to the next level.

“Red Cloud now requires four years of sciences,” Wendell Gehman explains, who serves as department chair. “When I first came here 15 years ago, we required two. But under the leadership of Bob Brave Heart Sr., our superintendent, that increased to three years. And now four.”

But the offerings go beyond introductory and advanced courses in biology, chemistry and ethno-botany. Through a grant from the Toyota USA Foundation and a partnership with Sanford Labs in Lead, South Dakota, students are gaining access to advanced lessons and developing mentorships with Native American professionals who are enjoying successful careers in the sciences.

“Last year we started a Science Club that turned out to be so much more,” Gehman says. “Early on we realized that many of the kids interested were also involved in 20 different after-school programs, so we meet every other week during lunch.”

This winter, Gehman brought seven sophomores from the club—all young women—to the 2011 American Indian Science and Engineering Society National Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the students not only participated in workshops as varied as robotics and environmental science, but also took part in a career fair that allowed the students to talk with researchers about what it is like to do what they do. This summer, he hopes to work with some of these same students on a research project that they would present at next year’s conference.

“Next year’s conference is in Alaska,” Gehman says. “I told those sophomores in Minnesota, ‘Your ticket to Anchorage is a commitment to scientific research this summer.’”

And in many ways, that idea is the ultimate goal.

“I want to see these kids go places… to exceed their wildest imagination. I want to challenge them sufficiently, so that when they achieve success, they might look back and think, ‘Wow, I didn’t think I could do that,’” he says.

“Every graduation, as I listen to the names called along with where they are going to college and what they will study, I keep a running tally of the number of them heading off to study nursing, medicine or some other science-related field… and it’s high,” he adds. “It’s good to see that what we are offering at Red Cloud is helping them to know that they can study anything—and do anything—they want… even those things they may not have initially dreamed before they walked into our classrooms.”