Tribal college program engages Native American students in STEM
By Sheila Yong
“How many of you have been to a tribal college?” asked toxicologist Douglas Stevens, Ph.D., as he began his talk Feb. 8 at NIEHS. “It is challenging to work with Native American students, if we don’t understand where they are coming from,” Stevens said, of efforts to engage Native American students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.
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Stevens is director of the Department of Life Sciences at Salish Kootenai College (SKC) in Pablo, Mont., which he founded in 2006. His talk offered the audience a fresh perspective on college-level science education for underrepresented populations.
Among the audience at the talk were several NIEHS employees with interests in outreach and diversity, including Office of Science Education and Outreach Director Ericka Reid, Ph.D., who represents NIEHS at annual meetings of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).
The unique features of SKC
SKC prides itself on its ability to provide individual attention to students, due to its low teacher-to-student ratio. “The largest class in my organic chemistry course, I have ever had, consisted of nine students,” Stevens said, to the surprise of the audience.
Since SKC accepts all who apply, it administers placement exams to determine if remedial classes are needed to prepare the students for college-level courses, and overcome the knowledge gap they may have experienced due to insufficient preparation during high school.
Stevens also pointed out that SKC students are often nonconventional — they are generally older, have lower incomes, and may already have families. To accommodate the students’ need for family and childcare support, SKC provides on-campus family housing and childcare facilities. “Exposing Native American students to STEM is not just about the hard science,” remarked Stevens. He said it’s equally important to understand the students’ ties to their community and the needs of their tribes, in order to promote self-efficacy and a sense of belonging to the institution among the students.
On the right track to success
SKC offers a four-year molecular-based Bachelor of Science degree program, the first among tribal colleges nationwide. Since its inception, the life sciences department has received financial support from various agencies and organizations, including the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense, and NIH Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement program. To date, the program has acquired approximately $7 million worth of state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, which, due to the small class and lab sizes, allows students to gain proficiency with these advanced tools.
The students begin their research early in the program. “They start in their sophomore year, and will present their research as their senior projects,” Stevens explained. Besides working at the bench, the students are also encouraged to present at in-house meetings and journal clubs, as well as attend meetings and conferences off campus. Stevens also seeks opportunities for his students to go to other institutions for internships or short-term research stints, so they can experience life outside of the reservation. So far, some of Stevens’ students have worked at universities in Montana, Washington, and Utah, as well as the National Cancer Institute. He is looking into sending some to NIEHS this summer.
Advice for future educators
Stevens offered advice for future educators who may be interested in teaching at tribal colleges. “Find out as much as possible about the tribal colleges you are interested in. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium website is a good resource,” Stevens commented. Although these colleges have adopted a Native American preference hiring system, the number of qualified Native American scientists is also limited, so opportunities do exist. “Tribal colleges cannot afford competitive salaries, so you have to realize you are not in it for the money,” Stevens advised.
It requires substantial effort to understand the tribal cultures and to develop innovative teaching styles that suit the local community. Still, if educators can overcome these challenges, the relationships they can form with the students will make all the sacrifices worthwhile.
(Sheila Yong, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Signal Transduction.)
Tribal college program enjoys national recognition
For his efforts in promoting interest in STEM programs among Native American students, Stevens was named the Distinguished Community/Tribal College Mentor of the Year by SACNAS in 2011. The Department of Life Sciences also achieved a major milestone that year, when four out of five of its students who attended the annual SACNAS meeting received awards for their posters. “The fifth one, Amy Stiffarm, didn’t get an award, simply because she had received one the previous year,” Stevens smiled. Nonetheless, Stiffarm’s poster was chosen by NIH to be featured at the 40th Anniversary celebration of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences Minority Opportunities in Research program in October 2012.
Stevens is aware that these achievements are just the beginning. “We are still a long way from producing RO1 [research project] grant-writing investigators, but we are hopeful that the training our students receive will give them the confidence to venture out of their comfort zone and work confidently alongside other scientists in the real world,” Stevens concluded.