Our HEROs: Engaging and Inspiring Native Engineers

Volume 28, No. 4 - Summer 2017
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Books in CMN’s Future Engineer in Training Series apply Menominee culture to help grade schoolers learn about the STEM fields.

How do we shift a faulty paradigm? What is the key to correct the trend identified in the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 Report, which states that American Indians and Alaska Natives received a mere 0.4% of all master’s degrees in science and engineering between 1985 and 2005? How can we, as faculty at tribal colleges and universities, persuade our students that engineering is a discipline they can and will thrive in? At College of Menominee Nation (CMN) we have found a gateway to encouraging our students’ Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) engagement. How did we do it? In a word: storytelling.

Our discussions began by asking how our engineering students could better articulate the fascinating findings they uncovered through their research. We quickly turned to communication practices found in our humanities coursework, and before long our students’ ideas were crisscrossing the proverbial education silos found throughout academia. We agreed that drafting research papers and presenting at conferences were necessary, but these standard disciplinary practices failed to keep our students excited about their findings, much less those who attended our community discussions. This was especially true of the youth in our audiences. We decided to tackle the problem head-on by showcasing our findings through a short skit, and before long we were speculating what storyline would both entertain and educate our audience.

The upshot of our endeavors was “CMN’s Solar Energy Research Institute Goes to Washington,” where we imagined what would happen if our students were summoned before an unsympathetic U.S. Senate subcommittee to discuss their research involving the college’s solar panels. We used both humor and obtuse questions to repeat the key takeaways we hoped our audience would remember. We presented the scene to the Menominee Youth Empowerment Program attendees and their families, and the feedback for our efforts was unanimously positive. Student writer/performer Chelsey LaTender recounts, “Creating a skit that made our research accessible to Native kids meant the world to me. I realized that this could be the spark that gets them as excited about engineering as I am.”

Truth be told, our practice of thinking outside the figurative educational box is not uncommon. Since the fall of 2011, CMN’s STEM HERO Program has aimed to build interest and student selfefficacy in STEM with an emphasis on CMN’s new degree offerings, including an A.S. in pre-engineering, an A.S. in pre-engineering technology, and a B.S. in manufacturing engineering technology. The word HERO in the program’s name is an acronym that captures what it strives to accomplish: Help others learn about STEM; Explore STEM education and career paths; Refine STEM skills; and engage in Outreach. For our college, the program allows students to explore STEM fields at varying levels of commitment with the hope that we can broaden participation in the disciplines. We saw our efforts succeed with the skit, but our greatest success was yet to come.

We challenged our students to engage an even younger audience by creating a children’s book series. Our intention was threefold. First, the books had to introduce grade-school children to engineering fields. Second, we wanted to create stories that put our characters in challenging situations that could only be resolved through STEM research. Finally, the books had to feature the Menominee clan system because we wanted to demonstrate that the five clans could be tied to engineering careers. “The clans are what center us as Menominee people. They prove we each play a role in our culture, and I’m happy our series shows that the clans are a part of modern Menominee life,” student Lloyd Frieson (Menominee) says.

The books are collectively called the “Future Engineer in Training Series.” Our students use challenges such as constructing a deer stand, a haunted Halloween yard display, a science fair project, a remote-control boat, and an aquaponics garden system to introduce students to the problem-solving potential of civil, biomedical, electrical, mechanical, and environmental engineering. The surname of each book’s protagonist is the name of their respective clan, and each book’s synopsis and plot highlight what the book’s featured clan means to the Menominee people—for example, the first book is titled Civil Engineering: Wendy Wolf and the Tree Stand, and the book’s back cover states, “In Menominee tribal culture, members of the Wolf Clan are hunters and gathers.” After much planning, writing, editing, and revising, CMN alumnus Sadie Milner added illustrations to coincide with the stories, and then our students used CreateSpace publishing to design the texts, which made them available through Amazon.com.

The books’ success exceeded our expectations. In addition to giving the books to local schools and libraries that serve as CMN’s educational partners, our students began staging readings in local classrooms and coffee shops. Student Burton Arthur (Apache) says, “I made multiple visits to read the series to my son’s class, and seeing their excitement and anticipation to hear our books about engineering felt great. It was awesome to see so many students in the community listen intently week after week.”

While our group was thrilled with this praise, the relationship that proved the most rewarding for us was our partnership with the Green Bay YMCA’s after-school program. We shared the books and corresponding engineering-based activities with their grade-school students in multiple schools. Student Sarah Brei notes, “The YMCA gave me the opportunity to work with youth who faced difficulties in their home life. I tried to encourage the children to seek a better education, and to remember that anything is possible if you work for it.”

The praise our books received both built our engineering students’ confidence and inspired us to create a second series focused on sustainable energy. Titled “Renewable Energy Specialist in Training Series,” we again used the three components of research, compelling plotlines, and the Menominee clan system to frame our work, but this time we wrote stories that showcased geothermal, hydro, biomass, wind, and solar energy. As student Travis Spice (Mohican) says, “I liked that we were able to write another book series. The first one was awesome, and I knew that we could make this one even better. After all, practice makes perfect.”

As educators, we can’t say enough about the confidence that our students gained by applying humanities concepts to their STEM education. We watched our students evolve from nervously presenting before a room of respectful adults to confidently commanding the attention of rooms filled with grade-school children. Their newfound self-assurance transferred to their typical discipline- required presentations as well, and we’re thrilled to report that our students have come to see themselves not only as engineering students, but also as STEM ambassadors.

So how do we counteract the large STEM performance and interest gap in Native Americans? CMN is demonstrating that storytelling may be an invaluable key. Our STEM HERO Program is a prime example of how to engage, recruit, and retain STEM students by grounding Western science in Indigenous values—and each graduating student is proof that we’re doing our part to shift a faulty paradigm.

 Ryan Winn, M.A., Lisa Bosman, Ph.D., and Kelli Chelberg, M.S., teach in College of Menominee Nation’s STEM HERO Program.


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