Tribal Colleges as STEM Leaders

Dr. Tim Olson, head of Salish Kootenai College's information technology department, with the college's satellite, currently under construction.

Dr. Tim Olson, head of Salish Kootenai College’s information technology department, with the college’s satellite, currently under construction.

Tribal colleges are often viewed as under-resourced institutions that must do more with less; they have smaller campuses, fewer books, less equipment for teaching and learning. This image conforms to a widely held view, often reinforced by those of us who advocate for the movement, that tribal colleges succeed despite their limited funding.

There is truth to this image, at least in the past, and it remains true for some of the newest and smallest colleges that are just beginning to develop their capacity, especially in STEM fields.

But this stereotype can mask the remarkable development of some other colleges.  After spending four days at Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation of western Montana, the main impression offered a visitor is not poverty, but the strength of the institution and the quality of its learning resources.

Two images come to mind as I look back on the visit. First was the life sciences program where I was shown lab facilities that were, frankly, far more sophisticated than anything I have seen at similarly-sized mainstream liberal arts colleges. A faculty member agreed that it was impressive and told me that I would probably have to visit a government research laboratory to find comparable facilities.

And what where they doing with all of this equipment? Research—and lots of it. Petri dishes were being observed, pathogens isolated, the source of a water-borne infection was being located. The hallways were filled with posters, produced for various research conferences.  Students barely acknowledged my presence as they tapped on computers and peered into microscopes. Serious science was underway.

Meanwhile, in nearby building, down a secured corridor, I was shown a current project led by the college’s computer science program. Inside a Plexiglas compartment, kept clean with a flow of filtered air, were the various parts of a satellite, nearly ready for assembly. It was a surprisingly small object—a metal cube that would, when completed, fit into my hand. But it required $30,000 of highly specialized parts, some of which were designed and assembled on campus, as well as months of exhaustive testing—and equally exhaustive paperwork–to meet strict NASA guidelines.

If all goes as planned, it will be shot into space and circle the globe for the next ten years, sending back photos and weather data that students will collect and monitor from their own mission control center.

These projects—and many others—illustrate that tribal colleges should not be viewed as institutions that must somehow overcome the handicap of being Indian-controlled. Rather, the opposite is true: STEM students are clearly getting an education that is self-evidently superior to most programs within mainstream colleges. Here, undergraduates enjoy access to better equipment, personal attention of faculty, and the support needed to conduct real—and really impressive—research.

I left the college vowing to myself that I would bury the “little engine that could” speech. This is the story of excellence.

So what are the challenges? STEM faculty widely discuss the hard work of student recruitment.   STEM program development has, to some degree, operated on the hope that “if you build it, they will come.” This strategy  works to some extent—the computer science program supports about ten students at the moment–but it appears that more is needed to bring a greater number of Native students into the exciting programs Salish Kootenai College has to offer and help them succeed academically.

The conversation also introduced other challenges: the limited number of STEM faculty, the difficulty of faculty recruitment (especially when tenure is not offered), and the uncertainty of soft money funding.

These are some of the issues that need to be acknowledged and addressed. But one thing is clear: When students are recruited, they will get the highest quality education available within the Academy. That, I was reminded, is the new story of the tribal colleges.

Paul Boyer is editor of Native Science Report. He is the founding editor of the Tribal College Journal and has authored five books and reports about Indian controlled colleges for the Carnegie Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

New report looks to the future of TCUP


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The National Science Foundation will continue to support tribal and native-serving colleges, according to leaders within the federal agency. However, colleges that have already received substantial support in the past will be encouraged to pursue new funding opportunities related to documenting the impact of their educational work.

That’s one of the key findings in a newly published report outlining the history, impact, and future of the National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP). Summarizing two days of presentations and discussions during the 2014 TCUP Leaders’ Forum, held earlier this year in San Antonio, Texas, the12-page publication stressed that the National Science Foundation’s commitment to the tribal colleges remains strong. However, it also noted that colleges must also look beyond capacity building as it pursues funding opportunities.

The report summarized the challenge this way:

“Representatives of the National Science Foundation candidly explained that the Foundation’s mission is not to indefinitely sustain core operations of a college or university. once capacity has been built or a program has been developed, project-specific funding ends. However, research into educational outcomes offers new options for continued engagement with the NSF, [TCUP Program Director Dr. Jody] Chase proposed. “When they get to the point where they no longer need to implement a new degree program then this is an area they might want to look into,” she said. “I view it as a kind of graduate degree.” It is an opportunity for colleges that are ready to move into the next phase of their development.”

The document identifies several possible research questions.

Copies of the report have been mailed to TCUP-eligible institutions. An electronic copy is available here: TCUP Leaders’ Forum Report

National Science Foundation undergraduate research symposium

The National Science Foundation is inviting tribal colleges to participate in the 2014 Symposium on Undergraduate Research in TCUP, planned for August 18.

Tribal college faculty and students interested in participating in this event should send an abstract (not exceeding 500 words) to Ms. Shanelle Clay (see email address in the attached flyer). Please indicate whether you are planning to do a poster or an oral presentation.

The symposium will be held at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. Airfare and per diem reimbursements will be provided.


Privatizing American Science

As government funding for research shrinks, the nation’s research agenda is increasing shaped by billionaire entrepreneurs willing to invest large sums in science–especially science that reflects their personal interests.

That’s the conclusion of a recent New York Times story investigating the the growing “privatization” of science funding. Increasingly, researchers are depending on the deep pockets of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google’s Eric E. Schmidt, and Oracle’s Lawrence Ellison for work that, in the past, was conducted by government labs and or with federal dollars.

“This is philanthropy in the age of the new economy — financed with its outsize riches, practiced according to its individualistic, entrepreneurial creed,” summarized writer William Broad. “The donors are impatient with the deliberate, and often politicized, pace of public science, they say, and willing to take risks that government cannot or simply will not consider.”

Some applaud the willingness of the wealthy to finance cutting edge research, but critics worry that money only goes to “sexy” issues (like space exploration) and supports a narrow range of social concerns (such as environmental concerns), while ignoring “boring” fields like physics and most basic research.

Equally worrisome is the preference for supporting work conducted by the largest and most prestigious universities at the expense of smaller institutions. This can undermine “efforts to foster a greater diversity of opportunity — geographic, economic, racial — among the nation’s scientific investigators.”

What does this mean for tribal colleges? Does it represent an opportunity for tribal and native-serving colleges–institutions that might engage the interest of socially-aware billionaire-philanthropists? Or will Native Americans be among the losers as research becomes a project of the wealthy and not a matter of the public good?

Read the full story here:


Bill Gates in 2005. Photo by Mohammad Jangda at the University of Waterloo.

News from Bristol Bay, Alaska (it’s all good)

Friends at the University of Alaska’s Bristol Bay campus sent us their latest newsletter, which spotlights some interesting research activities in environmental studies and green design. It’s an inspiring overview of what is possible in even the remotest regions of the country.

Here’s the pdf: BBESL-Newsletter-Spring-2013-final

New doctoral program in climate change

Here’s an opportunity for your students:

The University of Idaho is inviting applications for an integrated graduate education and research traineeship focusing on water resources and climate change. Masters students “with a background in the water sciences, environmental science, ecology, climate science and related fields” are encourage to apply to this five year doctoral program. “Exceptional” baccalaureate students will also be considered.

According to the program web site, the NSF-funded program will allow students to “study impacts of climate change and population dynamics on physical, ecological, and socio-economic systems, and integrate these to formulate proactive adaptation scenarios for the Columbia River Basin.”

For more information:

TCUP Leaders Forum to be held January 3-4

Developing and expanding research programs within tribal and Indian-controlled colleges will be the theme of the 2014 TCUP Leaders Forum to be held January 3-4 in San Antonio, Texas. Representatives of all colleges funded through the National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program are invited to attend this event.

This year’s forum is being hosted by Sisseton Wahpeton College. According to Scott Morgan, director of institutional research and programs, the 2014 gathering will allow colleges to “share and explore best practices and innovative approaches to STEM research, instruction, and evaluation under the theme ‘Broadening Participation In Research: Focus on Tribal Colleges.’ In addition, participants will discuss workforce challenges, opportunities, and the economic impact of TCUP on the tribal communities served.”

Additionally, discussions and presentations will examine the role of culturally-based research and focus on ways to integrate research into undergraduate instruction and community development initiatives.

Look for reminders and updates in your email in-box from Scott Morgan. In addition, we are posting some additional information about the program and a tentative agenda below.

We look forward to seeing you in San Antonio this January. We cannot guarantee good weather, but we are hopeful that it will be warmer than Rapid City.

Tentative agenda:1st 2014 Working Agenda

Invitation letter:Leadership forum letter

Documenting the History of PEEC

An important goal of  The Native Engineering Report is to gather and make available a wide range of documents about PEEC and, more broadly, the history and impact of NSF-funded programs related to tribal and Native education. Ultimately, we hope this web site will become a comprehensive archive that will not only inform your current work, but also help support assessment and the development of future proposals.

Several publications are already available through the “Links” tab. In addition, we are now adding two more documents.

The first is a copy of Building Community: Reforming Math and Science Education in Rural Schools, a 2006 report exploring the work and impact of the NSF-funded Rural Systemic Initiative. Tribal colleges played a central role in developing innovative practices for k-12 schools in Indian Country and both the University of Hawaii and University of Alaska developed and ran programs in their states.  This qualitative study tells the story of their work. (Please note that this pdf is not the final published version, which has been lost. In design and content it varies slightly from the print publication). Click here for the report: Building Community final

Secondly, Carty Monette is helping us locate conference proceedings and reports that eventually led to the formation of PEEC. This week, we are uploading a summary of a 2005 NSF workshop that documented the need for engineering education in tribal colleges. It illustrates how the project grew and evolved out of conversations that began nearly a decade ago. Here’s the document: TCU_Report_Final

We will continue to post reports and documents. Check back for the latest additions.

College of Menominee Nation celebrates its first pre-engineering graduate

By Paul Boyer

College of Menominee proudly announced the graduation of its first pre engineering student. Charles James graduated in June and is currently attending the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley where he plans to complete a B.S. in mechanical engineering.

“Charles was our first student and was a very understanding guinea pig for our experiments in instruction,” said College of Menominee Nation instructor Cody Martin. “Hopefully we managed to teach him as much as he taught us.”

James is, by all accounts, a highly talented student who enriched both the program and the college. “Charles was the valedictorian of his high school class (I’m told he was a talented running back on the football team) and is a man of impeccable character, diligence, charm and persistence,” Martin said. “He is a dedicated single father of one son who is more than a handful and rules his father with an iron fist (albeit a small one). I cannot think of anyone more suited to survive the birth of our little program. The tribe can be proud of his dedication and effort.”

“Of course we are all impatiently waiting for him to continue on to the completion of his baccalaureate degree,” Martin said.

Congratulations to both Charles and the College of Menominee Nation.



Twenty Years of National Science Foundation Support

The National Science Foundation has helped transform math and science programs at tribal and native-serving colleges. Carty Monette reflects on two decades of sustained support.

By Carty Monette

In a few months an important milestone will have been reached.  Next year, 2014, will mark twenty years of direct funding from the National Science Foundation to tribal colleges.

In 1994 NSF initiated the Tribal College Rural Systemic Initiative (TCRSI), a targeted comprehensive strategy to increase the number of American Indians succeeding in science and mathematics. In the RSI program tribal colleges were provided the funds to lead systemic approaches to improve K-12 STEM education in 109 schools located in six states on 20 Indian reservations.  TCRSI funding continued from 1994 to 2005 and in any given year well over 26,000 K-12 students were impacted.

Prior to TCRSI only a few tribal colleges had received funding from the National Science Foundation and at the National Science Foundation only a few individuals knew about tribal colleges.  Throughout the ensuing 20-year relationship new programs and funding opportunities have opened for both tribal colleges and for the National Science Foundation.  Perhaps the most important is the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP), a NSF program that was created in 2000 to provide tribal colleges with the resources needed to build STEM capacity

The first TCUP projects were funded in 2001.  The majority of early projects were basic in scope, reflecting the status of STEM education at tribal colleges, and sought to develop or strengthen STEM general education requirements and two-year STEM programs of study.  Several of the funded projects proposed to increase access to technology, which was an emerging priority.

Today, NSF’s $13 million annual appropriation to TCUP supports TCU’s that want to develop 4-year STEM degrees, including elementary and secondary teacher education programs.  TCUP supports research.  The TCUP-PEEC funding strand supports pre-engineering capacity building at tribal colleges while promoting partnerships with mainstream institutions and with the private sector.

In a 2009 unpublished article I stated NSF-TCUP might be the most overarching capacity building opportunity ever made available to a tribal college from the federal government.  All tribal colleges depend on the federal government for basic operating expenses and funding has never been adequate.  TCUP funding is generous, it is supplemental, and it specifically targets the STEM needs of tribal colleges and the students being served.

TCUP has successfully met its purpose.  In little more then a decade tribal colleges have developed and strengthened STEM education and research.   Paul Boyer, who has written extensively about the tribal college movement, makes an interesting observation about the growth of STEM at tribal colleges

“…tribal colleges are making STEM education a top priority.  Recognizing that tribal development now requires strong math and science skills, many tribal colleges now offer four-year and even graduate degrees…..Graduates find employment as biologists, forestry technicians, and extension agents within tribal, state, and federal agencies.” (p.8)

I can personally attest to Paul Boyer’s observation.  I was president of Turtle Mountain Community College for nearly 30 years.  While president I also had the privilege of serving as the principle investigator for the Tribal College Rural Systemic Initiative.  On a few occasions I have shared a story about one of my pre-TCRSI experiences.

Carty Monette

Carty Monette

In the early 1990’s I was invited to speak to a group of Turtle Mountain Chippewa high school students to introduce a new summer program that was to focus on science and mathematics.   There were many parents in the room along with teachers and other visitors.  I asked the students if any of them had a relative who was a scientist or an engineer.  The answer was no.  I then asked if any of them knew anyone who was a scientist or engineer.  Again, the answer was no.

My point was to highlight how removed our tribal members have been from academic and professional participation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Of course the responses I received were to be expected.  The Turtle Mountain high school students were representative of American Indians everywhere.  The fact was that in the early 1990’s the number of American Indians in STEM fields was so miniscule that government and other national data publications were unable to show the data on annual graphs and charts.  Over the last few decades tribal colleges have been working hard to improve the data but more importantly to assure American Indian students and communities are accessing high quality STEM education and research.

This Web site will highlight some of the work tribal colleges are doing.  Our primary focus will be on the NSF funded PEEC projects that are currently awarded to tribal colleges and Hawaiian serving institutions.  We will also include other STEM activities taking place at tribal colleges along with writings and publication. . If you are interested in learning the history of the NSF Pre-Engineering Education Collaborative please access the power point presentation and other information that is available elsewhere on this website.


 Dr. Gerald “Carty” Monette, Negoniwayton – Early Thunder, is a consultant for the SWC-PEEC project. Carty was President of Turtle Mountain Community College from 1975 – 2005

On December 3, 2002 during a special ceremony Carty was designated Eagle Staff Keeper, Chief of Education for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.  He was presented this Eagle Staff for his 30 years of service to TMCC.  Led by traditional leaders individuals and families gave eagle feathers for the Staff representing veterans and the veterans of the families.  On that day he was honored by the descendants of Chief Essence (Little Shell), Miskobiness, (Red Thunder), and Ginewash (Flying Eagle), when they brought him into that circle of Turtle Mountain “Spirit Chiefs”. Carty says “between now and the end of my journey on earth another Eagle Staff Keeper will be found for the Staff, probably at Turtle Mountain.”