Twenty Years of National Science Foundation Support

The National Science Foundation has helped transform math and science programs at tribal and native-serving colleges. Carty Monette reflects on two decades of sustained support.

By Carty Monette

Carty Monette
Carty Monette

In a few months an important milestone will have been reached. Next year, 2014, will mark twenty years of direct funding from the National Science Foundation to tribal colleges.

In 1994 NSF initiated the Tribal College Rural Systemic Initiative (TCRSI), a targeted comprehensive strategy to increase the number of American Indians succeeding in science and mathematics. In the RSI program tribal colleges were provided the funds to lead systemic approaches to improve K-12 STEM education in 109 schools located in six states on 20 Indian reservations. TCRSI funding continued from 1994 to 2005 and in any given year well over 26,000 K-12 students were impacted.

Prior to TCRSI only a few tribal colleges had received funding from the National Science Foundation and at the National Science Foundation only a few individuals knew about tribal colleges.  Throughout the ensuing 20-year relationship new programs and funding opportunities have opened for both tribal colleges and for the National Science Foundation. Perhaps the most important is the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP), a NSF program that was created in 2000 to provide tribal colleges with the resources needed to build STEM capacity.

The first TCUP projects were funded in 2001. The majority of early projects were basic in scope, reflecting the status of STEM education at tribal colleges, and sought to develop or strengthen STEM general education requirements and two-year STEM programs of study. Several of the funded projects proposed to increase access to technology, which was an emerging priority.

Today, NSF’s $13 million annual appropriation to TCUP supports TCU’s that want to develop 4-year STEM degrees, including elementary and secondary teacher education programs.  TCUP supports research.  The TCUP-PEEC funding strand supports pre-engineering capacity building at tribal colleges while promoting partnerships with mainstream institutions and with the private sector.

In a 2009 unpublished article I stated NSF-TCUP might be the most overarching capacity building opportunity ever made available to a tribal college from the federal government. All tribal colleges depend on the federal government for basic operating expenses and funding has never been adequate. TCUP funding is generous, it is supplemental, and it specifically targets the STEM needs of tribal colleges and the students being served.

TCUP has successfully met its purpose. In little more then a decade tribal colleges have developed and strengthened STEM education and research. Paul Boyer, who has written extensively about the tribal college movement, makes an interesting observation about the growth of STEM at tribal colleges

“…tribal colleges are making STEM education a top priority. Recognizing that tribal development now requires strong math and science skills, many tribal colleges now offer four-year and even graduate degrees…..Graduates find employment as biologists, forestry technicians, and extension agents within tribal, state, and federal agencies.” (p.8)

I can personally attest to Paul Boyer’s observation. I was president of Turtle Mountain Community College for nearly 30 years. While president I also had the privilege of serving as the principle investigator for the Tribal College Rural Systemic Initiative. On a few occasions I have shared a story about one of my pre-TCRSI experiences.

In the early 1990’s I was invited to speak to a group of Turtle Mountain Chippewa high school students to introduce a new summer program that was to focus on science and mathematics. There were many parents in the room along with teachers and other visitors. I asked the students if any of them had a relative who was a scientist or an engineer.  The answer was no.  I then asked if any of them knew anyone who was a scientist or engineer.  Again, the answer was no.

My point was to highlight how removed our tribal members have been from academic and professional participation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Of course the responses I received were to be expected. The Turtle Mountain high school students were representative of American Indians everywhere. The fact was that in the early 1990’s the number of American Indians in STEM fields was so miniscule that government and other national data publications were unable to show the data on annual graphs and charts. Over the last few decades tribal colleges have been working hard to improve the data but more importantly to assure American Indian students and communities are accessing high quality STEM education and research.

This Web site will highlight some of the work tribal colleges are doing. Our primary focus will be on the NSF funded PEEC projects that are currently awarded to tribal colleges and Hawaiian serving institutions. We will also include other STEM activities taking place at tribal colleges along with writings and publication. . If you are interested in learning the history of the NSF Pre-Engineering Education Collaborative please access the power point presentation and other information that is available elsewhere on this website.

 Dr. Gerald “Carty” Monette, Negoniwayton – Early Thunder, is a consultant for the SWC-PEEC project. Carty was President of Turtle Mountain Community College from 1975 – 2005

On December 3, 2002 during a special ceremony Carty was designated Eagle Staff Keeper, Chief of Education for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.  He was presented this Eagle Staff for his 30 years of service to TMCC.  Led by traditional leaders individuals and families gave eagle feathers for the Staff representing veterans and the veterans of the families.  On that day he was honored by the descendants of Chief Essence (Little Shell), Miskobiness, (Red Thunder), and Ginewash (Flying Eagle), when they brought him into that circle of Turtle Mountain “Spirit Chiefs”. Carty says “between now and the end of my journey on earth another Eagle Staff Keeper will be found for the Staff, probably at Turtle Mountain.”