Tribal Colleges as STEM Leaders

Tribal colleges are often viewed as under-resourced institutions that must do more with less; they have smaller campuses, fewer books, less equipment for teaching and learning. This image conforms to a widely held view, often reinforced by those of us who advocate for the movement, that tribal colleges succeed despite their limited funding.

Dr. Tim Olson, head of Salish Kootenai College’s information technology department, with the college’s satellite, currently under construction.
Dr. Tim Olson, head of Salish Kootenai College’s information technology department, with the college’s satellite, currently under construction.

There is truth to this image, at least in the past, and it remains true for some of the newest and smallest colleges that are just beginning to develop their capacity, especially in STEM fields.

But this stereotype can mask the remarkable development of some other colleges.  After spending four days at Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation of western Montana, the main impression offered a visitor is not poverty, but the strength of the institution and the quality of its learning resources.

Two images come to mind as I look back on the visit. First was the life sciences program where I was shown lab facilities that were, frankly, far more sophisticated than anything I have seen at similarly-sized mainstream liberal arts colleges. A faculty member agreed that it was impressive and told me that I would probably have to visit a government research laboratory to find comparable facilities.

And what where they doing with all of this equipment? Research—and lots of it. Petri dishes were being observed, pathogens isolated, the source of a water-borne infection was being located. The hallways were filled with posters, produced for various research conferences.  Students barely acknowledged my presence as they tapped on computers and peered into microscopes. Serious science was underway.

Meanwhile, in nearby building, down a secured corridor, I was shown a current project led by the college’s computer science program. Inside a Plexiglas compartment, kept clean with a flow of filtered air, were the various parts of a satellite, nearly ready for assembly. It was a surprisingly small object—a metal cube that would, when completed, fit into my hand. But it required $30,000 of highly specialized parts, some of which were designed and assembled on campus, as well as months of exhaustive testing—and equally exhaustive paperwork–to meet strict NASA guidelines.

If all goes as planned, it will be shot into space and circle the globe for the next ten years, sending back photos and weather data that students will collect and monitor from their own mission control center.

These projects—and many others—illustrate that tribal colleges should not be viewed as institutions that must somehow overcome the handicap of being Indian-controlled. Rather, the opposite is true: STEM students are clearly getting an education that is self-evidently superior to most programs within mainstream colleges. Here, undergraduates enjoy access to better equipment, personal attention of faculty, and the support needed to conduct real—and really impressive—research.

I left the college vowing to myself that I would bury the “little engine that could” speech. This is the story of excellence.

So what are the challenges? STEM faculty widely discuss the hard work of student recruitment.   STEM program development has, to some degree, operated on the hope that “if you build it, they will come.” This strategy  works to some extent—the computer science program supports about ten students at the moment–but it appears that more is needed to bring a greater number of Native students into the exciting programs Salish Kootenai College has to offer and help them succeed academically.

The conversation also introduced other challenges: the limited number of STEM faculty, the difficulty of faculty recruitment (especially when tenure is not offered), and the uncertainty of soft money funding.

These are some of the issues that need to be acknowledged and addressed. But one thing is clear: When students are recruited, they will get the highest quality education available within the Academy. That, I was reminded, is the new story of the tribal colleges.

Paul Boyer is editor of Native Science Report. He is the founding editor of the Tribal College Journal and has authored five books and reports about Indian controlled colleges for the Carnegie Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

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