George Thomas, a Cherokee and an eager young graduate student at the University of Oklahoma in the 1970s, was discouraged to learn that American Indian students were openly discouraged from pursuing areas of higher education that involved “hard science.”
Thomas had been recruited by the university to serve as the director of its new program, “FATE,” First Americans — Tomorrow’s Engineers. The program goal was to bring more American Indians to the university’s engineering school. At the time, only two American Indian students were enrolled in engineering. As he traveled the state enthusiastically promoting engineering as a career choice, Thomas was dismayed at the paternal attitude of high school and college instructors who sought to protect students from failure, steering them away from disciplines that required mastery of mathematics and towards more vocational pursuits. More insidious was the belief among students that they could not do math or science. That was 30 years ago.
Today, Thomas, who went on to cofound AISES, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, is proud to report that the organization has helped take “the legs off the myth that American Indians can’t do math and science.”
From Six to 2,000
AISES was founded in 1977 by six American Indian engineers, scientists and educators who shared the passionate belief that American Indians are capable of and belong in all aspects of STEM-related careers. The six met through their individual networking processes of working to bring more American Indians into math, science and engineering fields. They convened a meeting at the Winthrop Rockefeller Center at Petit Jean Mountain in Arkansas where AISES was officially born. Their mission statement then is much like the organization’s current statement: “The American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s (AISES) mission is to substantially increase the representation of American Indian and Alaskan Natives in engineering, science and other related technology disciplines.”
One of the founders, Al Qoyawayma, a Hopi engineer and artist and a current Smithsonian research fellow in Hopi ceramics, remembers that in the first meeting participants tacitly agreed to “leave our egos at the door. There is an unwritten aspect in the mission statement of AISES that we are a family. It’s a very strong emotional underpinning of the organization,” says Qoyawayma.
The founders and subsequent leaders share the notion that they are involved in a mission greater than themselves, according to Qoyawayma.
Right from the very beginning, the core of AISES was spiritual, he adds. “We introduced prayer from the outset, recognizing that spirituality is strength in the Native American community. Despite the diversity of tribes involved with AISES, we all accept each other and begin proceedings with prayer,” he says.
Prayer, he says, makes room for the creator and reminds participants that the work is more than personal egos.
According to Qoy awa yma , this spiritual, family focus of AISES sends the message to young American Indians that, “One way or another, we’re going to lift you up and out of where you are if you are willing to go ahead.”
AISES now boasts a membership of more than 2,000. They have dubbed their programming a “Full Circle of Support” that begins with K-12 affiliated AISES schools as well as science fairs and teacher training for fifth- through 12th-grade students. Project BIGSTEP is among the various grants and projects administered by AISES. Broader Impact from Graduate Students Transferring Engineering Principals to K-12 Education is a John Hopkins University-based project. Currently, fellows are working on an environmental sensor project with Red Lake, Bemidji Middle School and Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig schools, (traditional Ojibwe tribe schools).
AISES administrators distribute around $200,000 annually in college scholarships to more than 100 students. The organization also provides opportunities for college students to intern at a variety of agencies including the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Department of State, Al Qoyawayma, a Hopi artist and engineer, says that the family focus of AISES sends the message to young American Indians that, “One way or another, we’re going to lift you up and out of where you are if you are willing to go ahead.”NASA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Nez Perce Tribe. AISES has 172 chartered college chapters throughout the United States. The chapters provide community support for American Indian students at the university level. Each chapter allows students to participate in fundraising events, community service and educational activities and provides student members with a network of fellow students as well as a chapter advisor.
AISES claims more than 10,000 alumni and currently has 912 lifetime members, named Sequoyah Fellows after the Cherokee inventor who developed the Cherokee alphabet and syllabary.
Finding Complete Support
Sarracina Littlebird, Laguna Pueblo, is a recent AISES scholarship recipient. In her third year at Columbia University in New York City, she is majoring in environmental biology and dance. Littlebird received the Henry Rodriguez Reclamation College Scholarship that is awarded to students seeking a bachelor’s in engineering or science related to water resources or other environmental related fields.
She credits her interest in resource conservation with growing up in New Mexico where water is scarce and too many communities vie for its use. She has vivid memories of walking with her father in the mountains where he would point out plants and their various traditional uses. He also shared a deep love of the land with her and imbued her with an understanding that humans must learn to live in an ecofriendly way with the earth if they wish to survive.
Littlebird hopes to use her education and heritage to bring people back to nature and foster a more harmonious relationship with the land. She envisions using alternative forms of teaching, including dance, to communicate these lessons. Her elders taught her the meaning and choreography of the Pueblo dances. In Pueblo culture, dance is viewed as essential to keeping life and nature in balance.
In AISES, Littlebird found complete support for her dreams.
“Going to my first AISES convention was so empowering. The elders were very supportive of a young person such as myself who is interested in preserving culture and in melding it with STEM issues,” she says. In keeping with the traditional American Indian family structure that reveres its elders, AISES maintains an eight-member Council of Elders who share their wisdom and guidance with students and the organization as a whole.
Most important, AISES celebrates the American Indian relationship to the sciences, which is observation-based, Littlebird maintains.
“We are supported in holding our own beliefs and sent the message that these beliefs don’t delegitimize our scientific works or endeavors,” she says.
For Littlebird, everything about AISES harkens back to her Pueblo sense of community.
“AISES reminded me that we are all brothers and sisters. It also helped me realize that I am in a position to be a voice that needs to be heard.”
AISES’ annual conference will be held in Anaheim, Calif., Oct. 30-Nov. 1, 2008. The annual conference and career fairs routinely draw more than 2,000 people, according to Shirley LaCourse, Oglala, deputy director of AISES. The three-day event includes tracks for high school and college students as well as teacher and professional development. The career fair features more than 100 organizations. The conference offers a chance for students and professionals to present research as well. Primarily, though, the highlight is celebratory, says LaCourse. “We celebrate and honor our members’ accomplishments.”
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