Making Research Relevant

Students in Chief Dull Knife College’s Summer Research Internship build skills and confidence by learning how to monitor the health of local waterways. A new film, the result of a partnership with the University of Montana, documents the ongoing program.

By Paul Boyer

The Tongue River Reservoir is a twelve-mile-long man-made lake in southeastern Montana, formed in 1939 when the south-flowing Tongue River was dammed to provide water for irrigation and ranching. In a region where large bodies of water are rare, it is also one of the region’s top recreational destinations, attracting anglers, boaters, and vacationers at the adjoining state park.

For the past twenty years, the reservoir and river feeding it have served as a living laboratory for students enrolled at Chief Dull Knife College, located about 50 miles to the north on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Since 2001, more than 400 students at the two-year tribally controlled college have devoted their summers to monitoring the river and the reservoir’s water quality, gathering data useful to state agencies, while also learning skills needed to pursue STEM degrees at four-year institutions.

The story of this ongoing program is told in a just-released video produced by Mitchell Clark, a University of Montana media graduate student who followed faculty and students participating in the summer 2023 internship.

Practicing research. Building confidence

As the film documents, much of the day-to-day work involved measuring water pH, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, and temperature from multiple locations and at varying depths within the lake and along the shoreline. The college utilized a pontoon boat equipped with Hach and Hanna handheld meters. 

Along the way, students learn skills useful both in university labs and worksites. As project director Gary Ramsey explains in the film, familiarity with equipment used to monitor and analyze water gives students a leg up when they look for jobs or continue their education.

“If they were to transfer to a four-year institution and walk into a lab and somebody says, ‘You know how to run a Hanna meter?’ They can say, ‘Yea, I know how to do that.'”

College STEM leaders also say that the internships build confidence in students, which might be the most important outcome.

“We try to turn around that thought that ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I’m not going to be smart enough to do that,’” explains Chief Dull Knife College Chief Information Officer Jeff Hooker. Actively taking part in research—mastering the tools and concepts—helps students discover that “they can make it in the broader world and not feel displaced.”

Intern Shalay Eaglefeathers made the same point. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she said, but soon learned that “it’s ok to explore outside your comfort zone.”

Bringing research home

Funding for the summer research program comes from multiple sources, Hooker explained by email. “Primary, of course, is the National Science Foundation, but we have also supported interns with [funding from] the National Institutes of Health, NASA, USDA, the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Education, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

The program featured in the video is the result of two decades of experimentation and refinement.

In its early years, Hooker said, the college placed students on the campuses of partnering universities and colleges, including the University of Montana at Missoula, Montana State University at Bozeman, and Carroll College in Helena, Montana. These summer enrichment experiences “allowed students to experience the university campuses and research before actually transferring there.”

However, campus-based programs failed to connect research projects to the needs and interests of the tribal college students. “We eventually decided to bring the research component back to the tribal college and thereby connect the research to local issues and problems,” Hooker said.

“The research on the Tongue River Reservoir is the first true CDKC field research station or location for students to get involved with real research that has implications for them and this reservation,” he said.

The field station research site was able to come online because of a unique Memorandum of Understanding with the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department. This allowed the college to establish the station within the Tongue River State Park.

In the video, students repeatedly said they appreciated the opportunity to participate in research meaningful to the tribe. While the reservoir is located off the reservation, it is fed by the Tongue River, a 265-mile-long tributary of the Yellowstone River that flows along the eastern boundary of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The college has been involved in numerous studies along the river, but not at the reservoir until last year.

“It’s special to us,” explained student intern Elmore Limberhand. “It’s kind of like our back yard.”

Expanding relationships with university partners

Hooker hopes the summer research internship program will also help the college recruit more full time research faculty. Isolation and limited housing, among other factors, make tribal colleges a less attractive destination for research-focused STEM faculty. “As a possible solution we proposed to the Graduate School of University of Montana that perhaps graduate students or post-docs would be interested in joining us for a summer of research on the reservation.” 

As a result, two UM graduate students joined the summer 2023 program. One had a background in environmental impact research. The other, videographer Mitchell Clark, brought his media expertise.

“The video was produced as a result of the media graduate student following us around all summer and combining interviews with footage shot during the summer. Their contribution,” Hooker said, “was invaluable” and resulted in what he called “our first attempt at a video project.”

Paul Boyer is editor of Native Science Report

Story published December 18, 2023

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