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Minority Undergraduate Students Connect Over STEM Research Projects at United Tribes Technical College

By Katie Scarlett Brandt

Tribal colleges often collaborate with mainstream universities on research. So do historically black colleges. But why don’t different minority-serving institutions collaborate with each other?

That simple question led to a unique opportunity for a group of undergraduate students from four HBCUs and one tribally controlled college to take part in a 10-week research project this past summer at a school other than their own. Each student spent from May to July at their choice school, conducting research and meeting weekly with a mentor.

The National Science Foundation funded the project through a program called NSF INCLUDES—an initiative to enhance U.S. leadership in science and engineering by developing STEM talent from all societal sectors. The Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network took the lead on the program as part of an effort to wipe out disparities between under-represented groups in STEM education.

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Tribal College STEM Programs Brace for Change Under Trump Administration

by Katie Scarlett Brandt

Dr. Nader Vadiee, Engineering faculty, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute

Engineering Professor Nader Vadiee spends his days trying to fix a leaky pipeline. However, this pipeline isn’t leaking water or oil. It’s losing students.

“Imagine a very leaky pipeline from the community to academia, then to industry and back to the community,” said Vadiee, who heads the Engineering Department at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in New Mexico. “My students are single moms or dads, the average age 28 or 29. My mission is to get these professionals back to the community to create jobs.”

Building this pipeline requires funding, a significant portion of which comes from federal sources. For this reason, the election of Donald Trump has many in the tribal college community on edge. That’s because, so far, President Trump’s top priorities include:

What’s less clear: where research and STEM education fit into these goals.

“With the Trump administration and all the scary things we’re looking at with the budget, it’s hard to predict how things are going to pan out,” said Al Kuslikis, senior associate for Strategic Initiatives at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) in Washington DC. “We’re optimistic because of the history of support from both parties, but we understand that there have to be accommodations made in the priorities of this new administration.”

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Digging Deep

Former Salish Kootenai College student Matthew Weingart receives prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship for work in paleoecology

By Ryan Winn

Matt Weingart in the lab.

The Flathead Indian Reservation of western Montana has been occupied by Native peoples for millennia. Over the years, its wooden mountains and fertile valleys have both shaped and been shaped by this human presence.

For Matthew Weingart, a member of the Klamath Tribe, this relationship between people and the land represents a research opportunity. Fascinated by the impact of climate, fire, and humans on landscapes over time, Weingart is digging into the soil of the reservation’s Camas Prairie where, he said, “there’s a rich cultural history and human presence” dating back at least 13,000 years.

“It is in a type of forest that is typically not well understood,” he said. “Learning more about these systems can provide useful knowledge to forest and land managers, especially in times of changing environmental conditions.”

Now pursing a master’s degree in environmental science from Montana State University, Weingart’s work in the field of paleoecology has earned him a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) award. The prestigious award is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind and, according to the NSF, “has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers.” Previous recipients include “numerous Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin, and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.”

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Restoring Native Prairie Lands

Students and staff at Sisseton Wahpeton College in South Dakota have re-seeded 100 acres of farmland, restoring a lost prairie.

By Katie Scarlett Brandt

A sea of green grasses swayed across the northern plains 200 years ago. They created a dry, land-locked ocean, filled with bison instead of whales, birds in place of fish.

With European settlement, much of North America’s grasslands were lost by the middle of the twentieth century, largely due to extensive farming. Of the more than 170 million acres of tallgrass prairie that once covered the plains, less than 4 percent remains, according to the National Park Service.

However, Sisseton Wahpeton College in Sisseton, South Dakota is working to bring it back. The tribal college, located in northeastern South Dakota, seeded a 100-acre parcel located behind college’s rural campus in 2009, converting it from farmland after two years of planning. Eight years later, college employees and students work together to eliminate non-native species and restore the prairie grasses, flowers, and shrubs that once occupied the area.

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Engineers Save the Day

A new children’s book series created by students at College of Menominee Nation presents engineers as problem-solving heroes

By Ryan Winn

Simply put, there aren’t enough Native Americans pursuing STEM degrees. As the National Science Foundation reported in its Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 Report, American Indians and Alaska Natives received a mere 0.4% of all master’s degrees in science and engineering between 1985 and 2005. Examining barriers, research has documented a widespread belief among American Indian students, even in the early years of their education, that science, math and engineering fields are difficult, uninteresting, and not relevant to their lives.

Future Engineer in Training Series.

Combating these attitudes, College of Menominee Nation’s STEM HERO Program is making math, science, and engineering meaningful and relevant to Native students by offering hands-on, culturally grounded, and interdisciplinary approaches to STEM education. One of our most recent projects, publication of a children’s book series about engineering, is testament to our success.

Partially funded by the National Science Foundation’s Tribal College and University Program, two fellow faculty members and I created and implemented a model that led our engineering students through the process of book creation and publication. Next, we devised classroom activities utilizing K’NEX toy sets and shared our work with grade school educators and students in our community. We empowered our engineering students to create stimulating tools that inspire young people to engage in STEM. It’s an exciting process we hope to help replicate beyond Northeastern Wisconsin.

Creating Interest in STEM

The genesis for our work began when engineering professor Dr. Lisa Bosman expressed interest in transforming a lecture-based Introduction to Engineering course into a more active learning environment.

“Initially I assigned students present their research about the various engineering fields at each course meeting,” Dr. Bosman said. “I then asked the class to give feedback and pose questions before supplementing and clarifying any areas that needed it. While this was a helpful way to flip the classroom, the presentations revealed that students needed help building their research and communication skills.”

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Learning Biology Through Research

Tribal colleges join an innovative program that makes research the centerpiece of introductory biology courses

By Paul Boyer

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Program Officer Dr. Viknesh Sivanathan with student Emily Davis. Through the HHMI program, Davis began studying phages as a freshman at James Madison University and later worked as a lab assistant at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Several tribally controlled colleges will soon begin developing their own SEA-PHAGES programs. Photo courtesy of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Many colleges and universities now promote undergraduate research opportunities, but they are, too often, offered to a select few. While juniors and seniors pursing STEM degrees might, in small numbers, benefit from this enriched form of learning, most students enrolled in lower division science courses still encounter conventional 100-level lecture and lab classes.

Since 2008, however, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland has pioneered an innovative biology curriculum that makes original research the centerpiece of even introductory biology courses. Called SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science), the curriculum developed by HHMI focuses on the collection, isolation, and analysis of bacteriophages.

Bacteriophages, also called phages, are viruses that infect bacteria. They are abundantly present in the environment, both in soil and water, and are a highly diverse. This makes them an ideal subject for undergraduate research; every phage is a new discovery and its identification is a genuine contribution to the biological sciences.

According to HHMI Program Officer Dr. Viknesh Sivanathan, however, the larger goal of the SEA-PHAGES program is to enrich undergraduate education. Applying research methods to the isolation and analysis of phages allows lower division college students “the opportunity to engage in authentic research early in their academic career,” he said. “Not many students have the opportunity to do so, as most mentored research is typically offered to a small number of students.”

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Conducting Fieldwork in the Shadow of DAPL

Sitting Bull College’s Linda Black Elk leads an environmental impact study on plants at Standing Rock, and works to decolonize medicine through Medic and Healer Council.

By Katie Scarlett Brandt

The Dakota Access Pipeline under construction in Iowa. Photo by Carl Wycoff. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADakota_Access_Pipe_Line%2C_Central_Iowa.jpg

The Dakota Access Pipeline under construction in Iowa. Photo by Carl Wycoff. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADakota_Access_Pipe_Line%2C_Central_Iowa.jpg

Sitting Bull College instructor Linda Black Elk isn’t the easiest person to get a hold of—and with good reason. As an ethnobotanist who studies the way people use plants for food and medicine, her research interests have led her to become actively involved in the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline opposition movement at Standing Rock.

Black Elk now spends much of her time out of the classroom, traveling between two protest sites–Sacred Stone Camp and the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Both are within a few miles of Sitting Bull College on Standing Rock Reservation, and Black Elk has two active research projects unfolding there.

“I want to show the wider public that this isn’t just about water. Water is the foundation of life, but more than water will be impacted by this pipeline,” she says.

The projects grew out of a conversation Black Elk had back in April. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who lives on Standing Rock Reservation, told Black Elk that a construction company was planning to run a pipeline through the area near Allard’s land and under the Missouri River.

“She knew that I gathered food and medicine right in the path of the pipeline,” Black Elk says. “When I found out the buffaloberry was going to be gone, I said we have to do something.”

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