Land-Based Colleges Offer Science Students Sense of Place

Aug 15th, 1998 | By | Category: 10-1: Teaching Math and Science, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Gayle Lam, Arthur "Jade" Fitzpatrick, and Dee J. Bad Bear conduct water chemistry tests as part of a Little Big Horn College research project. Photo by Rich Stiff

The Navajo student bends over the map and traces the course of the San Juan River on the electronic digitizer. As Linda Bidtah works, the river appears on the computer screen. Soon the screen shows the Diné College-Shiprock (New Mexico) campus and the abandoned uranium mill site. Linda knows the families whose water supply might get tainted by the mill tailings. She knows the river. She attends the college. This is home, Diné Bikéyah.

The class material is relevant and compelling, not an abstract requirement for a degree. Although their GIS (Geographic Information System) classroom is located in a temporary modular building, 200 miles from the nearest university, Bidtah and her classmates Maxine Walter and Angie Bee are using state of the art technology—technology that provides a new perspective on the environmental issues of the Navajo homeland, Diné Bikéyah. The T-1 line carries data and maps not only from state and federal land administration agencies but also from their own tribal capital in Window Rock, Arizona.

This Fall issue of Tribal College Journal is devoted to math and science education. Land-based tribal colleges and universities such as Diné College have a unique responsibility. The majority of their students are usually members of the local tribes. Thus, unlike state-funded universities and community colleges, the tribal colleges are located in the homeland of their students, the students’ parents, and many generations before them. Each is chartered by its students’ tribal government. Their science and math classes prepare students who will eventually manage the forests, farmlands, fish, mines, streams, and lakes on their reservations and elsewhere. Their students will administer healthcare, engineer highways, maintain computer systems, and create businesses.

Although located primarily in rural areas, American Indian reservations have not been immune from environmental problems. Shiprock is one of many reservation towns affected by mining or milling of energy fuels or precious metals. Since reservations were set aside as permanent homelands, their air and water quality is especially important. Relocation is not an option if the nest becomes fouled. The health of the land and resources is directly related to the health of the people. The tribes need their own geologists, nurses, doctors, computer software programmers, hydrologists, algebra teachers, and mining engineers.

Early in their studies the tribal college students feel the weight of this responsibility, as evident in the comments reported by Michele Allen in her article in this issue about the Model Institution of Excellence based at Oglala Lakota College (Kyle, South Dakota). Kullo Sam wants to start a manufacturing plant on the Pine Ridge Reservation to produce computer hardware. After earning his Ph.D., Patrick Jones would like to work for the National Science Foundation or the Environmental Protection Agency to gain experience to make life better on the reservation. George Tall is a cofounder of a tribally owned business that thins pine trees on the reservation and will eventually build homes. After attending Stanford University and medical school, Tatewin Means hopes to own her own medical center specializing in pediatric cardiology. Unlike many Indian people their age, these students have the capacity to dream of themselves making a difference.

Creating educational models

Despite the great need for Indian scientists, Indian students have historically been underrepresented in college science and math classrooms. Thus tribal colleges and universities such as Diné College and Oglala Lakota College have been forced to look at innovative ways of attracting them and keeping them interested in science and math courses. Oglala Lakota College has been officially designated as a Model Institution of Excellence by the National Science Foundation, but other tribal colleges are also creating national models with significance for both Indian students and non-Indians. When conventional teaching methods are used, it’s not only Indian students who are scoring low in science and math. Research has shown that all students respond better to hands-on education, according to Judy Gobert, program manager for the All Nations Alliance for Minority Participation. Similarly, students of all backgrounds respond to methods that make science and math relevant to their daily lives, tapping their natural curiosity.

Tribal colleges are forging new ground as they orient their curriculum to place and culture. At Shiprock, Dr. Steve Semken and Frank Morgan integrated Navajo pedagogy into an introductory physical geology course for Navajo students, incorporating the Navajo model within an earth systems curriculum. The Navajo interpretation of nature attributes changes in the surface environment to interactions between Nohosdzáán (Earth environment) and Yádilhil (Sky environment). Semken and Morgan say the course enhances Navajo students’ ability to do science while reinforcing their understanding of their culture. They believe that the capacity to draw on two systems of scientific knowledge better enables their students to hypothesize and think critically.

Diné College-Shiprock, Northwest Indian College, Salish Kootenai College, and others are breaking down the walls separating geology from history and biology from physics. At Diné, they have tried to link natural and social systems in courses such as ethnogeology, collecting case studies of the geological influences of selected military, political, economic and environmental episodes involving Native lands in the intermountain West, according to a paper presented to the Geological Society of America by Dr. Semken, Carolyn Goldtooth-Semken, and Laurencita Luna.

In a new program starting this fall, Northwest Indian College (Bellingham, Washington) is integrating tribal issues such as treaty rights, sovereignty, and culture with biology, economics, and political science. Students can earn a two-year degree in Tribal Environmental and Natural Resource Management from the program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. In addition to NWIC and Western Washington University faculty, experts from tribal and state government and from industry will bring a “real world” perspective into the classroom, according to Dan Burns of NWIC. NWIC collaborated with Evergreen State College and Western Washington University to develop the degree. Upon graduation, students may work as technicians or transfer to one of the partner universities to seek a bachelor’s degree in Natural Resource Management, Planning, Pre-Law, or Environmental Studies.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.