Small Grants, Big Impact

The National Science Foundation’s Small Grants for Research program promotes faculty recruitment and retention within tribal colleges, while also strengthening undergraduate teaching.

By Melanie Lenart

Diné College Associate Professor Oleksandr Makeyev (second from right) with high school students participating in a 2019 STEM festival. The outreach activity was one part of Makeyev’s Small Grants for Research project. Photo: Oleksandr Makeyev.

Tribal colleges are primarily undergraduate institutions and, for most instructors, teaching is the top priority. But for those in the STEM fields, research also has an important role to play. By conducting original research, faculty remain active within their discipline and, often, address pressing needs of the local community. Undergraduate learning is also enhanced when students participate in faculty-led research.

In the past, however, many tribal college instructors, faced with large teaching loads and limited access to research facilities, struggled to pursue their own research. These limitations made it harder for tribal colleges to recruit and retain STEM faculty members.  

The National Science Foundation is helping overcome these barriers by offering TCU faculty members an opportunity to apply for up to $200,000 in funding for research as part of its Small Grants in Research program. Proposals for projects lasting up to two years are due on December 10.

The Small Grants in Research (SGR) program is intended to support “faculty members in STEM disciplines or STEM education at TCUP-eligible institutions,” according to the NSF solicitation. The agency notes that these awards “are intended to help further the faculty member’s research capability and effectiveness” and “improve research and teaching at his or her home institution,” among other outcomes.

Diné College Associate Professor Oleksandr Makeyev, recipient of a 2016 SGR award, outlined some of the activities that the funding made possible for him and his students.

“My first SGR award funded establishing my research laboratory here at Diné College back in 2016. Since then (as an institution) we have developed a focus on cutting edge research, participation in which has been shown to significantly enhance STEM education for students,” Dr. Makeyev explained. “Support from SGR awards made possible submission of two patent applications that became the first ones not only for Diné College but, to the best of my knowledge, for any tribal college or university.”

The awards also have supported salaries for undergraduate research assistants over the years, and seven of them joined him as co-authors on various publications, including journal papers. His students have also had many opportunities to travel for conferences, including a STEM festival last year. At the November festival, they demonstrated an activity they do in an effort to entice high school students into STEM fields, showing them how to build circuits modeling wind, solar and hydropower electricity plants.

SGR is one funding strand within the NSF’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP), which was established around the turn of the millennia.

Dr. Gerald “Carty” Monette credits NSF TCUP Program Director Dr. Jody Chase for starting this funding line dedicated to tribal colleges and universities. Monette, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota and president of Turtle Mountain Community College for 30 years before retiring in 2005, attended a meeting led by Chase back in 1994 as one of a handful of TCU presidents.

Chase invited rural states and tribal college officials to the 1994 meeting as part of NSF’s Rural Systemic Initiative, said Monette, who helps organize an annual leadership forum for NSF principal investigators. The rural initiative to promote improved education and interest in careers in math and science gave the NSF an opportunity to engage with tribal colleges, and for tribal colleges to become familiar with NSF, he noted. Over time, these relationships strengthened and led to the development of the many grant opportunities developed by Chase and others into the TCUP program, including SGR. 

The Small Grants for Research program could be “a deciding factor about whether a faculty member…decides to come to a tribal college and decides to stay there.”

“Most of the tribal colleges are located in very isolated areas, very rural. That poses a problem in recruiting and retaining faculty. So that’s one thing that the SGR program will do,” Monette said. In some cases, he suggested, SGR could be “a deciding factor about whether a faculty member—and I’m talking Native or non-Native—decides to come to a tribal college and decides to stay there.”

The general lack of tenure-track positions at tribal colleges, the full teaching loads that come with TCU positions, and the tendency for students to be less academically prepared can all be deterrents for recruiting and retaining faculty, he said, along with the general rural isolation. Also, he added, working at TCUs may offer less opportunity for home ownership, a typical route for building wealth in the mainstream culture that does not apply on tribal lands.

Along with potentially helping to recruit and retain faculty members, Monette said, the grants can help attract and retain students in the STEM fields by involving them in research.

For instance, when Dr. Jeremy Guinn, currently a program officer for the NSF Tribal Colleges and Universities Program, was teaching in the Environmental Science Program at Sitting Bull College in North Dakota, he required students to develop, conduct and defend a full research project. As reported in a summary by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the annual retention rate of the environmental science students during this time frame (2005-2010) averaged more than 80 percent—almost double the overall retention rate at the college.

An ongoing SGR project at Salish Kootenai College in Montana is focusing on huckleberries. There, faculty and students conduct experiments on pollinator exclusion, hold berry productivity counts, and assess peak ripeness of berries using time-lapse cellular cameras, among other things. Huckleberries are a traditional food for many tribes and they are also recognized as having medicinal properties.

Monette noted that students can see research as a way to serve their community, something many of them appreciate.

“When students are exposed to research through lead faculty, their interest will increase and they’ll want to pursue STEM and they’ll want to complete a professional degree,” he said. “In addition, if they see that they can help their community through their research, that’s an added value that triggers interest in students.”

Melanie Lenart, Ph.D., is a regular contributor to Native Science Report.

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