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Climate Change-Themed STEM Curriculum Developed for Tribal Colleges

The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) has developed a unique program to help improve American Indian students’ achievement in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines. AIHEC has partnered with tribal colleges to create an introductory curriculum on climate change that students and instructors can share online.

Funded by a National Science Foundation Geosciences Award, the Tribal College Climate Change Course Series helps students and faculty at small, often remote tribal colleges gain entrée to science courses to which they might not otherwise have access, according to Katherine Mitchell, director of STEM Initiatives at AIHEC.

Typically, tribal colleges have limited resources and may employ only one science instructor, says Mitchell. By making use of existing “cyber infrastructure,” schools can share expertise already present at other colleges without spending more money. “We use internet tools such as Facebook and YouTube that the students know and are already using,” says Mitchell.

For instance, if a tribal college is lacking a class in dendrochronology, the science of tree-ring dating that is helpful in understanding the impact of climate change over long periods of time, the Climate Change Course allows students and faculty to share online class material created by Dr. Teresa Newberry at the Tohono O’odham Community College in Arizona. 

Teaching a class about climate change is challenging because it is such an interdisciplinary subject, Newberry says. “The class spans physical and biological sciences in addition to government policy, economics and social sciences.”

Although the Climate Change course is part of an AIHEC initiative to help TCUs build capacity to develop and sustain STEM education and research programs, tribal colleges have created the course structure and materials, Mitchell says.

Nineteen science faculties from 12 tribal colleges gathered in January 2009 to begin development of the course curriculum, Mitchell says. Course collaborators chose the medicine wheel to symbolize the course’s framework, placing climate at the center. Various versions of a medicine wheel are used by many American Indian cultures to symbolize the cyclical interconnectedness of life, says Mandy Guinn, environmental science instructor at the United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota, who helped build the course. 

The image of the medicine wheel with its reference to the four earth elements of water, earth, air and fire represents an analogy of the structure of the Climate Change course, according to the syllabus. During the class, students learn about climate change using the values of the medicine wheel that focus on the interconnected effects of a changing climate on the earth. For instance, the course unit regarding hydrology (the science of the movement, quality and distribution of water on earth) includes reference to the sacred nature of water within indigenous cultures, says Newberry.

“We have students discuss the importance of water in their cultures and share this information with students at other tribal colleges,” she says. This helps students relate the science of water to their own cultures and validates the importance of indigenous knowledge.

Jodi Voice of the Oglala Lakota, Cree and Cherokee tribes is pleased with the way scientific information is presented in the class. The Native American studies major at Haskell Indian Nations University considers the course helpful as she pursues her main interest in examining how climate change affects sacred sites. 

“Hydrology is very important in understanding the impact of climate change on sacred sites where ceremonies are conducted that use water,” she says.

The Climate Change course started for the first time this semester in January  at Northwest Indian College, Dine College, Tohona O’odham Community College, Haskell Indian Nations University and the College of the Menominee Nation.  The introductory nature of the course is especially novel according to Mitchell.  This reflects AIHEC’s and the tribal colleges’ mission to involve American Indian students in the sciences early on in their careers, she says.

Using a symbol such as the medicine wheel is an example of making STEM studies culturally relevant to American Indian students, says Mitchell. 

According to AIHEC research, integrating indigenous knowledge into science curriculum helps American Indian students succeed. The education of future American Indian scientists requires an educational context that supports the traditions, knowledge and languages of their communities as the starting place for learning new ideas and knowledge, Mitchell says.

Dr. Daniel Wildcat, a member of the Muscogee tribe and director of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center, says that offering a course integrating indigenous knowledge lets students know they don’t have to leave their cultures at the door when pursuing careers or study in STEM disciplines.

Far too often mainstream scientists come into Indian Country with their own research agendas without consulting American Indians, notes Wildcat. 

“With programs like the Tribal College Climate Change Course,” he says, “we are working to grow our own scientists and researchers to help ensure native people have a seat at the table when governments are discussing policies to address climate change.”

-Mary Annette Pember

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