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.

Students participating in the HBCU-TCU gathering at United Tribes Technical College. Morehouse College student Alden Brown is standing on the right. Photo provided courtesy of The QEM Network.

In this first year, the project included seven students. Alden Brown, a sophomore at Morehouse College in Atlanta, was one of them. A biology undergrad who plans to enroll in an MD/PhD program, he chose a plant biology project at Tuskegee University in Alabama, looking at how magnetic fields affect native plant growth.

Other students’ research projects included:
• Wildlife trapping systems
• Water and fish quality
• Plant conservation
• Impact of historical trauma on Native Americans
• West Nile virus incidence

Halfway through the 10-week program, students met at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota for a three-day research gathering. Traveling from as far away as Georgia, the gathering provided students an opportunity to present their community-impacting research and receive feedback.

“We wanted to see what would happen if we mixed African American and Native American students who have that common (minority education) experience,” says Althea Burns of the QEM Network, who served as co-principal investigator on the project. “The small group of students got to know each other and know about each other’s institutions. They saw how the research they do could impact their communities.”

Morehouse College student Alden Brown agreed that the three-day gathering deepened his understanding of tribal communities. “I feel like it should be a requirement for students from HBCUs to go to TCUs,” he says. “It was a great idea to have everyone meet in North Dakota because for the people such as myself who didn’t get that TCU experience, we could get it then.”

On the first full day of the conference, students traveled to areas around the state, including Standing Rock Reservation, and learned what was happening within the local tribal communities.

“It was really different,” Brown says. “I didn’t know what to expect, but getting to learn about the Native American cultures and being able to talk with them was eye opening.”

Learning about the anti-pipeline camps at Standing Rock, which Brown hadn’t been aware of prior to the trip, stood out to him. That something as major as the Standing Rock protests could be happening without Brown knowing surprised him. “People aren’t necessarily aware of the problems going on outside of where their circumstances are,” he says.

On the last day of the research gathering, students practiced their presentations, received feedback from advisors, and then presented to their peers.

Burns says she valued the experience. “It was great for me to meet the students,” she says, adding that on her way to the gathering, she questioned if the group would truly accomplish anything in only three days together. Within the first 24 hours, though, the students had already connected. “They’d all gotten to know each other and were having fun. That made me feel good.”

Brown still keeps in touch with students from the gathering. He says he also learned a great deal about the nature of research throughout the 10-week project. “As my first big research opportunity, it showed me how research actually works. It starts out with a plan, and then you have to go with the flow,” he says.

The project’s organizers will keep that in mind as they work to prepare for next year’s research experience and gathering. They’ll use what they’ve learned from this year’s students and aim to make an even greater impact with more TCU and HBCU students next year.

Katie Scarlett Brandt is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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