Hands-on, Culturally-Relevant Projects Help Engage Native Americans in Engineering

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Tyler Rust

Newswise — Researchers developing programs that encourage Native Americans and Native Hawaiians to become engineers are sharing what they and their students have learned in a book titled “The PEEC Experiment: Native Hawaiian and Native American Engineering Education.”

The book can be downloaded for free from Open PRAIRIE at http://openprairie.sdstate.edu/cvlee_book/1/. Copies have been distributed to every tribal college recognized by the federal government and to universities with an engineering program which may wish to collaborate with these tribal schools, according to civil engineering professor Suzette Burckhard of South Dakota State University. She and research associate Joanita Kant edited the book, which contains articles written by Paul Boyer, founder of the Trbal College Journal, as well as 33 faculty and staff members plus students from 16 colleges and universities.

Burckhard is the principal investigator for nearly $1 million National Science Foundation grant that funded SDSU’s portion of the Pre-Engineering Education Collaborative, which began in 2010. She and faculty from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology collaborated with faculty and students at Oglala Lakota College.

Though each school has its own NSF grant, the researchers worked collaboratively to develop a pre-engineering program at Oglala Lakota College. All three South Dakota schools received NSF funding in September 2016 to continue their work. In the last six years, nearly 70 students participated in the PEEC summer workshops.

Shaping pre-engineering education

The researchers chose the title “The PEEC Experiment” to reflect the program's investigative nature. “It’s about developing unique ways to bring the pre-engineering education component to this population,” Burckhard said. An experiment is set up to accomplish an objective, but researchers can make changes based on their observations—that fluidity is what the book’s title captures.

“Overall, researchers found that culturally relevant, research-based, hands-on teaching and learning had the greatest impact on recruiting and retaining engineering students,” Burckhard explained.

The National Science Foundation structured the program with the tribal or native-serving college at the center of each collaborative, according to Kant. Ideally, pre-engineering students take their first two years of classes at their local Native-serving colleges and then transition to a university engineering school for their junior and senior years.

North Dakota State University works with five state tribal colleges, while two University of Wisconsin campuses—Madison and Platteville—work with the College of Menominee Nation. The University of Hawaii at Manoa collaborates with five Native community colleges. Each research group describes its program strategies in the book.

In building connections with Oglala Lakota College faculty and students and tribal agencies, the faculty and staff at the larger South Dakota universities were keenly aware that “we are doing something with them, not to them,” Kant pointed out. “It’s about letting them lead and doing what works for them.”

For example, Oglala Lakota College has 13 teaching campuses, 11 on the Greater Pine Ridge Reservation, one in Rapid City and another in Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Reservation. “The large number of campuses allows the college to bring education to where the people are, thus overcoming some transportation problems,” Kant noted.

Empowering students, communities

Tribal and community leaders helped South Dakota researchers at all three schools iidentify water quality, food sovereignty, affordable housing and cultural preservation as priority areas. The faculty and staff then developed hands-on learning projects that were integrated into the pre-engineering curriculum to address these needs. Authors describe the sense of empowerment students feel when they tackle these problems.

The Natural Resources Regulatory Agency on the Pine Ridge Reservation was one of the first Oglala Sioux tribal agencies to collaborate with the PEEC researchers, according to Burckhard. Tribal officials were concerned about how uranium mining south and west of the reservation might potentially impact soil and water quality.

Having tribal members take measurements and generate baseline data will help communities protect their resources, she noted. “That increases tribal sovereignty and self-reliance, because if they don’t have their own evidence-based data, data from outsiders will be used.” Both South Dakota universities have been involved with OLC in projects related to soil and water quality.

Engaging support networks

The researchers learned the importance of having champions, community and family members to support OLC students, Kant pointed out. She and Burckhard were among those who identified the importance of women as community leaders and as a source of support and encouragement for students. The Wisconsin group, in particular, used a woman-centered approach.

OLC instructor James Sanovia, a PEEC co-principal investigator, contributed a book chapter detailing his education journey. He is the first—and so far only—Oglala Lakota geological engineer, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and now working toward a master’s degree from SDSMT. He describes the challenges he faced in a chapter titled, “Finding an Engineering Identity.”

He and other Native students emphasized the importance of having a support system—both at home and at the larger university. The encouragement of their professors and mentors were key elements that helped them complete their degrees.

A majority are nontraditional students, according to Kant. Many have children and some are also caring for additional family members as well, adding to the challenge of getting a college degree.

Burckhard hopes this book will motivate faculty from other engineering schools and Native colleges to begin similar programs. “These collaborations must continue to be nourished,” she added.

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