Building Confidence

STEM students featured in a new Native Science Report video talk about overcoming barriers and setbacks 

By Paul Boyer

What keeps a Native student from pursuing, or successfully completing, a STEM degree? While the path to graduation has many hurdles, too many undergraduates are derailed by a lack of confidence—a deeply felt belief that they don’t “belong” in the sciences and won’t be able to keep up with the work.

Along with academic and financial support, these students also need reassurance. They need to know that it’s normal to periodically feel overwhelmed, that setbacks are not reasons to quit, and that peers and sympathetic faculty can help pull them through.

That’s the central message of Growing Self-Confident STEM Students, an inspiring new video from Wellspring Media. Produced by Native Science Report, the five-minute film spotlights the experiences of Native students pursing pre-engineering and geoscience degrees at several tribal and Native-serving institutions.

Talking candidly, the students discuss the challenges they faced and the doubts they experienced. All, at some point, felt lost and alone, especially during the first months and in difficult gatekeeper courses.

“I actually failed pre-calculus—two times—and dropped it a third,” confided Nikki Arakawa, a pre-engineering student at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.  “It was not working out for me, and I just didn’t know how to make it work.”

Yet each student persisted and, ultimately, found a home within their program. What’s needed, argued Oglala Lakota College student Madison Phelps, is determination and an ability to see yourself as a trailblazer.

“You have to be uncomfortable…and you have to change what an environmental or mechanical or civil engineer looks like, because no one is going to do it for you.”

But students don’t need to rely entirely on their own resources. Indeed, the video makes it clear that strong support from peers and trusted faculty is vital. All students featured in the film were part of either the Pre-Engineering Education Collaboratives (PEEC) or the Partnerships in Geoscience Education (PAGE). These initiatives, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program, supported the creation of new geoscience courses and engineering degree programs within tribal colleges and the University of Hawaii. All incorporated peer support and faculty advising as part of their retention efforts.

Nikki Arakawa said the cohort model, which encouraged students to study and socialize together, made all the difference in her pre-engineering program at the University of Hawaii. “I would grab them by the ankles and they would just pull me along.”

Growing Self-Confident STEM Students is a companion to Native Science Report’s 2023 video, Building Partnerships in STEM Education, which investigated the goals and outcomes of both PEEC and PAGE.

Paul Boyer is editor of Native Science Report.

Story published January 26, 2024

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