Northwest Indian College’s “Space Program”

Are robots now passe? The coming thing in undergraduate STEM research just might be rockets–including rockets that break the sound barrier. According to a feature recently aired on the NPR program Here and Now, faculty and students at Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Washington are leading the way.

It all started with a project to build low tech and low altitude pop bottle rockets, but jokes about the college’s “space program” inspired computer science teacher Gary Brandt to take the project to the next level. He bought a few small solid fuel rockets.

Their work caught the attention of NASA, which provided a bit of money and allowed the college to build bigger rockets and enter some competitions. One of their creations even broke the sound barrier.

The full Here and Now story, with photos, can be found here:

Integrating the liberal arts into engineering education


The Blackstone River today. Students were asked to invent ways to clean this once polluted river using nineteenth century technology.

The liberal arts should be an integral part of engineering education, according to Loni M. Bordoloi, program director at the Teagle Foundation, and James J. Winebrake, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, they describe several innovative programs that are bringing these two distinct worlds together:

  • A civil-engineering course at Worcester Polytechnic Institute challenges students to invent ways to clean up the Blackstone River, which was highly polluted in the late nineteenth century, by using technology available in that era.
  • At Lawrence Technological University, meanwhile, students read several classics of western literature, such as The Odyssey and Brave New World and examine each from a technological perspective. The goal, state the authors, is to ” explore the way ethnically, geographically, or historically diverse cultures perceive both the benefits and the dangers of technological progress.”

These historical and cross cultural approaches to instruction should sound familiar to tribal college faculty who are finding their own ways to integrate social, historical, and cultural issues into their STEM programs, including the growing number of engineering and pre-engineering degree programs. But examples from mainstream universities might provide some additional ideas for instructors looking for ways to make engineering courses interesting and relevant.

The full Chronicle of Higher Education op ed is available here:

For more about Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Liberal Arts and Engineering degree program:


Oglala Lakota College challenges safety of uranium mining in Black Hills

Testimony by Dr. Hannan LaGarry spotlights the vital role of research in tribal colleges


Dr. Hannan LaGarry. Photo Credit: Scott Morgan

A controversial plan to reopen uranium mining in the southern Black Hills was dealt a blow earlier this year when research conducted by Oglala Lakota College faculty member Hannan LaGarry found that operations by Azarga Uranium Corp. risk serious contamination to the region’s water supply.

“In my expert opinion, artesian flow demonstrates a lack of containment at the site and poses a significant risk of unexpected, serious contamination of the Cheyenne River and its tributaries, faults and sinkholes,” said LaGarry, who is co-chair of the college’s Math, Science and Technology Department and a geologist by training.

These findings were based on research conducted by LaGarry and a team of Oglala Lakota College students. Azarga Uranium Corp. sought to keep these research findings from the public. However, The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled that the damaging testimony be made public.

A widely reprinted news story about LaGarry’s testimony and subsequent events can be found here.

As this story continues to unfold,  Native Science Report Editor Paul Boyer asked LaGarry to talk more about the important role Oglala Lakota College plays in community-based research and also about the role Oglala Lakota College students played in this particular investigation.


Boyer: Tell me about the role of Oglala Lakota College in the debate over uranium mining near the Pine Ridge Reservation. Would the tribe have the capacity to pursue this kind of research without the presence of the college?

LaGarry: Without Oglala Lakota College’s Department of Math, Science, and Technology, the tribe would not have the capacity to do this type of research. There are several reasons for this.

First, tribal agencies, such as the OST Environmental Protection Program, the OST Natural Resources Regulation Agency, the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority, and the Tribal Historical Protection Office are regulatory, permitting, and monitoring bodies only, and do not have the funding, resources, personnel, collaborations, and expertise for these activities.

Additionally, I’m the only faculty with the training and background to directly confront this issue.  Other faculty participate in TCUP, PEEC, and EPSCoR (the main funders of the research), but I was recruited to OLC (by then-VP for Instruction Gerry Giraud) based entirely on my long history of local expertise–I’m one of a handful of geologists that specialize in the stratigraphy of the northern Great Plains.

OLC’s role is vital. The other academic/research geologists around work for the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology are all pro-industry and pro-mining and would not be involved on the tribe’s behalf.  Since I’m not a mining geologist (no industry leanings whatsoever) and personally study stratigraphy and vertebrate fossils, I’m insulated professionally from any backlash from the mining industry.  I’m also politically insulated by virtue of working for the tribe.  I’m financially insulated by virtue of being funded by NSF and USDA.

Boyer: I understand that some Oglala Lakota College students were involved in the research process.

LaGarry: Three students (Patrisse Vasek, Camille Griffith, and Jake Ferguson) helped go through thousands of paper records and compile data.  We met a week prior for training, and I narrowed the data we were looking for so as to be most efficient with their help.

This was not part of a class, but a labor of love on their parts. Our attorneys had gotten us some funding, so I could give them a stipend and cover their expenses. The stipend was to make up for the NSF TCUP and PEEC-funded Research Assistantship hours they sacrificed to work on this project instead.

We braved freezing temperatures and a snowy blizzard to spend three days in Hot Springs/Edgemont. We drove to the mine’s offices, and worked for about sixteen hours compiling data. I then wrote the testimony. Its no secret around here that I couldn’t have done it without them. The volume of data we sifted through gave us the impact we needed.

Boyer: What is  happening now around the uranium mining issue? Get us up to date.

LaGarry: The Dewey-Burdock hearing (discussed in the newspaper story) will be decided by April 30th 2015, so we don’t know the outcome.  This mine is proposed, and hasn’t actually started yet, and a ruling in our favor would prevent it from starting.

Currently, there is another, similar proceeding involving the established Crow Butte Resources ISL [in-situ leach] uranium mine in Crawford, Nebraska. This mine is located upstream from the reservation along the White River. In November I provided an opinion on that, and the initial results are in (documents are attached below). The hearing for this one will be this coming 24-26 August 2015.  There will then be some additional back and forth, and this one may be decided as early as early 2016.

Boyer: What are some other emerging environmental policy issues that Oglala Lakota College or other tribal colleges should address?

LaGarry: Water, water, water, water.  It’s all about water. Research has shown that we’re about 30 years into a 140-year cycle of drought that will get much worse before it gets any better.  This is the overarching issue for Western and Plains tribes.

Other issues, such as climate change, food sovereignty, animal and plant resources, sustainable housing, and energy independence all come back to the availability and amount of potable water. This is true for everyone, but especially developing nations like ours (the Oglala Lakota Nation).


Additional documents related to LaGarry’s testimony: Crow Butte decision March 2015  LAGARRY UPDATED CBR OPINION 2015


Agreement with NDSU strengthens research, teaching at Sisseton Wahpeton College


Officials from NDSU and Sisseton Wahpeton College recently signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at meeting the needs of American Indian students. Sisseton Wahpeton College President Harvey Harvey DuMarce is pictured at the far right.

A landmark agreement signed by Sisseton Wahpeton College and North Dakota State University will support the academic needs of Indian students attending both institutions, especially in STEM fields, tribal and state education leaders recently announced.

A memorandum of understanding, signed January 16, provides for more  support services for Sisseton Wahpeton College students who continue their studies at the state university. It will also promote faculty exchange programs, collaborative research, and the development of articulation agreements to assure smooth transfer of credits earned at the tribally controlled college.

NDSU also will help Sisseton Wahpeton College establish an associate of arts degree in the behavioral sciences, according to an NDSU press release. The new initiative is funded through a National Science Foundation grant.

North Dakota State University, located in Fargo, is the state’s largest research institution with a total enrollment of over 14,000 students. Sisseton Wahpeton College, located in Sisseton, South Dakota,  was founded in 1979 and typically serves 200 to 250 students, mostly enrolled members of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.

College and university leaders believe the agreement will strengthen both institutions. “We’re very excited about this opportunity to strengthen our relationship with Sisseton Wahpeton College, particularly by collaborating with them in establishing a program that will meet the needs of Native American students and help them to prepare for important leadership roles in tribal communities,” said Kent Sandstrom, dean of the NDSU College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Sisseton Wahpeton College President Harvey Dumarce agreed. “This memorandum of understanding will open up more educational opportunities for both of our institutions.”

Robots: Not just for rich kids

wired-13.04-315x257Illegal immigrants can build robots, too.

That’s the message of Spare Parts: Four undocumented teenagers, one ugly robot, and the battle for the American dream.  This new book by Joshua Davis (FSG Originals, 2014) recounts the work of four high school students who, according to a January 10 story in New Scientist, “live in a run-down suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, with barely a legal immigration document between them.”

Despite their unpromising background, they completed in a NASA-sponsored underwater robotics competition, going up against MIT and other academic powerhouses.

The story, first reported by Joshua Davis in a 2004 issue of Wired, is now a book, and will soon be a movie.

For STEM faculty and students looking for ideas and inspiration, there’s a wealth of information about the project and the students’ dedicated teachers:

Here’s the original 2004 Wired Magazine story:

Wired magazine has an interview with the teachers here:

(Here’s a sample of the magazine’s Q and A:

WIRED: What could WIRED readers do to help you?

            Lajvardi: Elect school board members who aren’t so focused on test metrics.)

Finally, this is a short story about the upcoming movie:

New funding for innovative undergraduate math programs

The National Science Foundation is inviting proposals to support innovation in undergraduate math instruction during the first two years of college. According to a recently released Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), the goal is to strengthen academic success in core math courses for students interested in pursuing STEM degrees.  Projects will be funded as supplements to existing awards. Specifically:

“Researchers are invited to submit supplemental funding requests for existing awards; to use the EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) funding mechanism, which supports exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches; or submit proposals for conferences to support the following types of activities:

  • design and development work to pilot innovations with high impact potential for helping students learn the mathematics generally taught in the first two years of both 2-year and 4-year postsecondary institutions
  • conferences in 2015 on using research to improve student success in the mathematics generally taught in the first two years in the first two years of college.”

This DCL will be in effect until May 1, 2015. Tribal Colleges and Universities Program Director Dr. Jody Chase emphasized that this DCL represents an opportunity for tribal and native serving colleges, which focus on undergraduate instruction.

For more information see the full text of this Dear Colleague Letter at

Outcomes of Pre-Engineering Education Initiative


Dr. Carty Monette speaking to participants of the Pre-Engineering Education Collaboaratives workshop, held December 15-17.

Until recently, many American Indians living on the nation’s poorest and most isolated Indian reservations did not know what engineering was or what engineers did. Aside from associations with locomotives, engineering was a mysterious and inaccessible profession.

That is starting to change, however. Thanks to a National Science Foundation-funded initiative, Indians enrolled in tribally controlled colleges, along with native Hawaiian students enrolled in their state’s public community colleges, now have an opportunity to learn about engineering-related professions, earn pre-engineering degrees within their home communities, and seamlessly transfer to schools of engineering in mainstream universities for completion of four-year and graduate degrees.

Those are some of the findings from a recent gathering of faculty and program directors affiliated with the soon-to-be completed Pre-Engineering Education Collaboratives (PEEC) program. Working with native-serving colleges in four states–Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii– the initiative supported development of  pre-engineering degree programs in reservation communities and established affiliations with mainstream university partners. That goal was to nurture interest in engineering professions,  promote academic success within two-year institutions,  and encourage the successful transfer of Indian and native Hawaiian students to partnering universities.

Outcomes are still being evaluated, but preliminary findings discussed at the workshop suggest that the program  increased interest and access to engineering degree programs. In the process, the program also  promoted student success in difficult math and science “gatekeeper” courses, enriched the variety and quality of STEM courses in tribal colleges, and promoted professional collaboration between faculty at tribal, native-serving, and mainstream institutions. Because of PEEC, several reservations now have a small but growing cadre of tribal members with engineering degrees–men and women who are able help guide the development of their communities and serve as role models for the next generation of students.

Detailed findings will be discussed in an upcoming report. Preliminary outcomes are summarized by the various collaboratives in the following PowerPoint presentations:

Wisconsin PEEC Outcomes

Hawaii PEEC Outcomes

North Dakota PEEC Outcomes


2014 PEEC Workshop Agenda

The 2014 Pre-Engineering Education Collaboratives workshop will be held December 16-17 at the Embassy Suites in Minneapolis. The focus of this year’s gathering will be on discussing and documenting outcomes of the NSF-funded effort.  It will be a rich conversation and we are looking forward to your presentations.

The full agenda is available here: 2014 PEEC Workshop agenda

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


cover shot

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