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.
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.”
Dr. Bosman then approached me, a member of our Humanities and Communication faculty, to help students draft and present research that connected with a diverse audience. After a year of drafting and presenting research papers, posters, and even a short theatrical skit, we brought in a member of our elementary education faculty, Kelli Chelberg, to help us create a project that would entice a younger audience to start thinking about STEM fields. We wanted to inspire more Native people to take an interest in STEM, and we knew that we’d have to engage grade school children if we wanted to maximize our impact.
After much brainstorming, we realized that creating a children’s book series would meet all of our goals.
Our engineering students were excited about the possibility of writing books, and we provided an outline for them to follow. Each of the books required a grade-school-aged Menominee protagonist, an engineering field, a competition or comparable event with a looming deadline, a mentor figure to assist along the way, and a triumphant conclusion. Our group agreed that our books should feature women and people with disabilities succeeding in STEM endeavors, because we wanted the books to be both inspiring and inclusionary. Finally, the books had to feature the Menominee Clan system because we wanted to demonstrate that the five clans could be tied to our storytelling. Student Lloyd Frieson (Menominee) stated, “The clans are what center us as Menominee people. They prove we each play a role in our culture, and I’m happy our series shows that the clans are a part of modern Menominee life.”
The books were collectively called the “Future Engineers in Training Series.” Our students used challenges such as constructing a deer stand, a haunted Halloween yard display, a science fair project, a remote control boat, and an aquaponics garden system to introduce students to the problem-solving potential of civil, biomedical, electrical, mechanical, and environmental engineering. After much planning, writing, editing, and revising, CMN alumnus Sadie Milner added illustrations to coincide with the stories and our students used CreateSpace to publish the texts, which made them available through amazon.com beginning in the spring of last year.
Distribution and Next Steps
The books’ success exceeded our expectations. In addition to giving the books to CMN’s educational partners, our students began staging readings in local classrooms and coffee shops. We shared the books and corresponding engineering-based activities with Green Bay YMCA’s after school program. Student Sarah Brei stated, “The YMCA gave me the opportunity to work with youth who faced difficulties in their home life. I tried to encourage the children to seek a better education, and to remember that anything is possible if you work for it.”
The praise our books received both built our engineering students’ confidence and inspired us to create a second series focused on sustainable energy titled, “Renewable Energy Specialist in Training Series,” which we published over the summer of 2016. We again used the three components of research, compelling plotlines, and the Menominee Clan system to frame our work, but this time we wrote stories that showcased geothermal, hydro, biomass, wind, and solar energy.
In September, we distributed both book series to the 4th grade teachers and school libraries in the surrounding districts and on December 5, Professor Chelberg hosted a Renewable Energy Workshop for Educators. She stated, “We had 22 educators attend from 5 different school districts. The teachers represented K, 2, 3, 4, and 5th grades. They each received both sets of our books as well as a K’NEX kit/teacher guide. It was such a great success that we will be offering a second one in late January or early February.”
Educators who attended the workshop were generous with their praise. “I plan on using this as a tool for my students who excel and need differentiated instruction,” responded one workshop participant. Another offered this feedback: “I love how the hands-on approach allows students to explore, use higher-level thinking skills and modify as they see fit. These books are a great way to offer differentiation instruction for my entire class.”
We hope to expand our project beyond CMN. Dr. Bosman stated, “We’re ready to share our process with other tribal educators including TCUs, in-service K-12 teachers, and pre-service teacher education students. By following the steps we’ve created, educators can teach their students how to incorporate culture and topics of tribal interest, indirectly increasing communication skills, and providing an opportunity to positively inform the next generation.”
We hope you’ll contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to initiate a future collaboration.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theatre, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, a Tribal College which has campuses in both Keshena and Green Bay, Wisconsin. He is the Director of Creativity and Inclusion for CMN’s STEM HERO Program, where his role is to guide students’ application of creative communication strategies.