Weaving STEM Education and Culture

An NSF-funded video, first released in 2009, documents the growth of STEM programs within tribal colleges.

By Paul Boyer

The National Science Foundation started supporting the development of STEM programs within tribal colleges in the 1970s, yet thirty years later the institutions remained unknown to many people. In 2009, hoping to highlight the work of the colleges and the vision of their leaders, the NSF’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP) produced one of the first documentaries about the tribal college movement, focusing their diverse STEM programs.

Weaving STEM Education and Culture profiles academic programs and student research projects at eight tribal colleges, from Southwest Indian Polytechnic in New Mexico, to Sitting Bull College in Montana. Through dozens of interviews, the film summarizes the history of the tribal college movement and the impact of TCUP funding on both the colleges and their communities.

Much of the video examines how science is used to empower tribes. The film follows Dull Knife Memorial College students as they study the impact of mining on local waterways, and explores how Dine College faculty blend what one instructor calls “Navajo science” into the STEM curriculum.

While the video documents the recent past, it captures the mood of the colleges in what now feels like an earlier era, when many STEM programs were still in development and student research was a relatively new idea. It also includes interviews with several long-serving faculty and administrators, including Jack Jackson, who played a key role in the growth of Dine College; Tom Davis, who helped develop academic programs at several colleges, including Navajo Technical University; and the late Robert Madsen, who served for many years on the Dull Knife Memorial College faculty.

Capturing the vision of these and other influential educators makes the film a valuable part of the tribal college history. At the same time, it remains a timely introduction to tribal colleges and the distinctive role of STEM within Native communities.

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