Twenty Years of NATURE

This long-running academic enrichment program is creating pathways to STEM careers for Native students in North Dakota

By Paul Boyer

In the fragile and fleeting world of education reform movements, it’s worth noting the durability and accomplishments of the NATURE program, now celebrating its twentieth anniversary.

NATURE (Nurturing American Tribal Undergraduate Research and Education) began in 1998 as an informal collaboration between four North Dakota tribal colleges–Turtle Mountain College, Sitting Bull College, Cankdeska Cikana Community College, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, and United Tribes Technical College–and the North Dakota State University.

Carol Davis

According to former Turtle Mountain College Vice President Carol Davis, the goal was to strengthen STEM education opportunities for American Indian middle school, high school, and tribal college students. “Our motivation in the beginning was to increase the number of American Indian students who would declare STEM as a major,” Davis recalled.

Today, NATURE involves all five tribal colleges in North Dakota and both of the state’s research universities. The concept was originally supported by a grant from the Office of Naval Research. When ONR funding ended, the National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP) provided seed money to the North Dakota EPSCoR program, which allowed the project to continue, Davis said.

It is currently maintained as an EPSCoR sponsored education outreach project with matching funding from the state. EPSCoR–Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research–was created by the National Science Foundation in 1978 in order to more widely distribute federal research funding nationwide.

Additionally, funding was also awarded from NSF-TCUP for student stipends and other support.

Over the years, NATURE has pioneered activities that build interest in STEM fields, strengthen academic skills, incorporate cultural content, and help American Indian students make the transition to college. Programs include:

  • University summer camps, which bring tribal college students to UND and NDSU campuses for two weeks every June;
  • Tribal college summer camps, which are held for two weeks every summer on each of the state’s five tribal colleges; and
  • Sunday Academies, which provide monthly STEM-related activities in reservation communities, focusing on engaging STEM-related activities developed by K-12 teachers, tribal college instructors, and university faculty.

As part of this work, NATURE helped pioneer the integration of traditional cultural knowledge into the mainstream STEM curriculum, Davis said. “When the group came together to design the program, everyone agreed that we would use our own science to introduce the lessons,” she recalled. “This required each tribal college to identify a spiritual or cultural teacher to help write a tribal lesson for each instructional unit and that person would agree to be the first teacher the students would see as the lesson was introduced.”

This was groundbreaking work at the time and, to succeed, required close collaboration between university-based STEM faculty and tribally-based teachers, instructors, and cultural leaders.

Fortunately, said Carol Davis, “It happened, and this unique, successful model was created.”

As a next step, the Tribal Nation Research Group, A nonprofit organization formed in 2014 to promote research in indigenous communities, will begin studying the effectiveness of the NATURE program in improving math skills. It also plans to research written English skills, according to Davis, who currently serves as a TNRG senior associate.

Tribal college students conducted research on snapping turtles at the University of North Dakota during the 2015 NATURE university camp. Photo by Scott Hanson.

“Although the success of former students attests to the positive impact of the program,” she said, “the research emphasis underscores the value of NATURE to the state as a multi-faceted program that impacts students and instructors in many positive ways not originally intended.”

A recently distributed EPSCoR press release has more information about the work and impact of NATURE.

Additionally, the North Dakota EPSCoR website provide links to dozens of lesson plans and other resources developed by faculty over the years.