Ready for Work

Tribal colleges prepare students for STEM jobs that strengthen Native nations, argues a new video produced by the National Science Foundation

By Paul Boyer

The role tribal colleges play in promoting employment and tribal economic development is the focus of a new video produced by the National Science Foundation.

TCUP: A STEM Workforce for the Future “highlights programs leading to workforce development and entrepreneurship training for students at America’s tribal colleges, as well as the related economic development implications for the tribes,” according to the National Science Foundation. Most of the projects featured are supported by funding from the NSF’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP).

The video summarizes the history of TCUP and features programs at several tribal colleges, including Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico; Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, North Dakota; Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town, North Dakota; and Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Washington.

In the past, few Native Americans pursued STEM careers—not because they lacked interest or ability, but because opportunities for education were absent. The founding of the first tribal colleges in the 1970s helped make higher education accessible. With support from the NSF, tribal colleges now have the resources needed to build what the video characterizes as “a small but growing STEM workforce.”

Elmer Guy, president of Navajo Technical University, noted that, in the past, tribal members did not have the credentials needed to compete for STEM jobs within their own reservations. “A lot of those jobs were contracted out to outside companies,” he said, most of which were staffed by non-Indians.

Now, however, tribal colleges are providing degrees that allow tribal members to qualify for jobs in both the public and private sector. The video features students who have or expect to find employment as construction engineers, tribal planners, biologists, and teachers.

The work of student inventors and entrepreneurs is also highlighted. Student Erika Begody, a member of the Navajo Nation, described her work in developing a solar powered device that keeps medicine cool in homes without electricity. Her invention won first place among tribal college entries in the White House Innovation Challenge. Other inventions coming out of tribal college labs and workshops include a voice activated wheelchair built by a student for his handicapped father, and drones used for environmental monitoring of tribal land contaminated by abandoned uranium mines.

STEM programs not only reduce unemployment, they also enhance tribal self determination, the video argued. Tribes now have the expertise needed to develop and pursue their own policies, and on their own terms. The video features programs promoting solar energy development, affordable housing, and environmentally responsible management of land and water resources.

All this leads to empowered and self-sufficient communities. “We are building that confidence,” said Cynthia Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College. “We are building that hope.”

The video can be viewed online or downloaded from the NSF’s website and freely distributed for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial use.

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