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Bringing Native Students Into STEM Fields


researchers doing geologic mapping

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Pre-Engineering Education Collaborative researchers do geologic mapping along the White Clay Fault near Slim Butte on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Credit: Tyler Rust

Three schools in South Dakota are teaming up in a continued effort to encourage more Native American students to enter the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Oglala Lakota College, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, and the South Dakota State University were each awarded $495,000 grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation to evaluate the ongoing program and move the effort forward. The project — OLC, SDSU, and SD Mines Pre-Engineering Education Collaborative (OSSPEEC) — includes faculty, students, scientists and engineers working to solve real-world problems on the Pine Ridge Reservation, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota.

The collaborative includes work to help Native students at OLC enter pre-engineering programs and then finish their degrees at South Dakota School of Mines or South Dakota State. The project also provides professional development for college educators to help boost the number of Lakota students who enter pre-engineering classes.

Jason Tinant is the OSSPEEC principal investigator at Oglala Lakota College where he is also an environmental science instructor. "Engineering is the application of science for the betterment of the community," says Tinant. "This kind of engineering education can increase tribal sovereignty over water, food, and language. This project embodies the Lakota ideals of 'wolakociypai,' [learning the ways of the Lakota for the community] and 'tiospaye' [the making of new relations]."  

The project model emphasizes hands-on learning experiences that help Native students connect their own cultural values and understanding with general principles in science and engineering. Students in the collaborative helped design a greenhouse on Pine Ridge and helped engineer drainage for a new community housing development. The project also works to provide access to advanced manufacturing technologies for pre-engineering students at OLC to increase college readiness. In addition to the focus on undergraduate engineering education, the education collaborative includes goals to graduate Native American students with advanced degrees who can serve as OLC faculty and help meet reservation engineering needs.

Furthermore, the effort advances scientific research on regional air and water quality. That includes research on indoor air quality at sustainable housing facilities on the Pine Ridge Reservation, surface and subsurface geologic mapping to understand hydrologic conditions at the reservation, and riparian studies on rivers and streams across approximately two million acres administered by the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Foster Sawyer is the OSSPEEC principal investigator at SD Mines and associate professor of geology and geological engineering. "The OSSPEEC program is a wonderful example of mainstream universities teaming with Tribal colleges to broaden the opportunities that are available to Tribal students," says Sawyer. "Projects in the program are designed to provide a benefit to communities on the Pine Ridge Reservation which also helps the students to understand the importance of engineering in improving the world in which they live."  

Tinant and Sawyer are working with Suzette Burckhard, a third OSSPEEC principal investigator. Burckhard is the assistant department head and professor of civil and environmental engineering at South Dakota State University.

"We've been keenly aware that the project must address needs that community and tribal leaders identified. The success of this project depends on keeping Native students and communities (including tribal colleges) at the core of engineering education. In addition, providing support systems at home and at the mainstream engineering schools is essential to student success," says Burckhard.

Project leaders point out that nationwide the Native American population is severely underrepresented across STEM fields. Native Americans represent about 1.5 percent of the total U.S. population. But, in the U.S., Native people make up only about 0.5 percent of engineering enrollment. In South Dakota, Native Americans represent about 9 percent of the state population but only about 3.6 percent of student enrollment at SD Mines in the spring of 2017.  At SDSU, Native American students make up about 2 percent of the school's engineering majors. 

The effort aims to increase the diversity in the engineering workforce by increasing recruitment, retention, persistence, and completion rates in pre-engineering and engineering. This NSF grant funds the second phase of the collaborative. Phase one showed great success. In the last three years, Native students in the program earned two NSF Graduate Fellowships, three Udall Fellowships, one Truman Scholarship, and a high proportion of top-ranked student undergraduate research projects.


 

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