Active science learning at SIPI

Feb 25th, 2013 | By | Category: 24-3: The Science of Place, Tribal College News
By Summer M. Raines, Olivia George, Salina Torres, Gloriana Trujillo, and Leyma De Haro

Introductory biology courses for non-major students present challenges for students and instructors alike. Additionally, underrepresented minority students, including Native Americans, tend to leave science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines early in their education.

We designed an introductory biology course for the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI, Albuquerque, NM) in response to science education research that recommends incorporating active learning into the curriculum. The goal is to enhance student learning and counter the trend of students leaving STEM disciplines. As part of the course, we assigned a final project in which students selected a topic that was of interest, related to topics discussed in the course, and applicable to their community. The final product consisted of a short group presentation and informational pamphlet.

After forming groups and selecting a topic, students were required to meet “milestones” before their final presentation. These milestones were designed to monitor the group’s progress and direction. In addition, we provided examples of acceptable work for each milestone such as a summary paragraph, outline, pamphlet, and presentation slides.

The majority of the class chose to research topics related to their Native communities. A student from Louisiana researched the effects of the BP oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. A second group chose hantavirus, a rodent-borne pathogen first discovered on the Navajo reservation. These connections to community and culture made often obscure, unapproachable scientific topics immediately relatable to students. The results were striking: our students were invested in the project and produced professional-quality pamphlets and oral presentations.

We attribute the great success of the project to planning, monitoring (milestones), and well-defined expectations (providing examples of what was expected). We strongly encourage other tribal college instructors to consider implementing into science classes research projects that incorporate topics and ideas relevant to the students’ communities as a way to fully engage and excite a student population that is often wary of college-level science.

This project was developed by a group of postdoctoral fellows at the University of New Mexico: Leyma De Haro, Ph.D.; Olivia George, Ph.D.; Summer Raines, Ph.D.; Salina Torres, Ph.D.; Gloriana Trujillo, Ph.D. The fellows were supported by the National Institutes of Health Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards training program and the National Science Foundation FIRST IV training program. For more information on these programs, please contact For more information about SIPI, please contact nader.vadiee@BIE.EDU.

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