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AISES scores an ace with 30th annual conference

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Disneyland was only a block away, but Mickey Mouse and crew just couldn’t compete with the kind of magic offered up at this year’s 30th annual American Indian Science & Engineering Society conference.

There were elder scientists blessing the next generation of American Indian science-minded individuals. There were high school and college students trying to land high-tech jobs from the likes of IBM, Google and Raytheon. There were environmentalists laying out plans for tribes to reap the benefits of a renewable energy future.

Above all else, there was an overarching imperative in the air to increase the still small numbers of Native students interested in and entering into the hard sciences.

“We want to – we have to – be doing more to encourage our young people to enter the science, technology, engineering and math fields,” said John Herrington, the first Native American to travel to space, during a session focused on STEM needs across Indian country.

Calling himself the “doom and gloom” guy, Stacy Phelps, a member of the South Dakota Board of Education, shed light on where Native students stood in the field in recent years.

According to government education statistics, Phelps said there were only 1,504 Indian students who graduated with science and engineering Bachelor of Science degrees in 2004. That number amounts to about 0.8 percent of the total number of science and engineering graduates.

Overall, there were 169,000 Indian students enrolled in some sort of post secondary education program in 2007. But from 1995-2004, Phelps said there was an average yearly growth of less than 70 Indian graduates per year in the hard science fields.

“It’s never too late to start mentoring kids,” Phelps told an audience of STEM-focused adult Indians. “We have to start now…it’s a challenge to each one of you to start doing what you can today.”

Phelps has long been working to improve the Indian education pipeline. In 1992, he helped create the South Dakota GEAR UP program, which today targets 1,100 students per year in grades 6 through 12 for college awareness and preparation. The program serves 24 middle schools and 14 high schools across the state of South Dakota. He’s also worked closely with tribal colleges on encouraging their attendees to pursue STEM-related degrees.

Herrington called the low rates of students graduating from the hard science fields “sobering statistics,” and later noted that he’s working with Phelps to develop a new non-profit called the American Indian Institute for Innovation that would provide scholarships and other educational opportunities for Native science and engineering students.

Despite the grim numbers, Amy Minnier, of the Pechanga Development Corporation, said it’s important to realize that Native students are just as good as their non-Indian peers at STEM learning.

“Our people have been good at these fields for thousands of years,” Minnier said. “That fact has to be known by our children.”

Cara Cowan, an engineer who sits on the Cherokee Nation tribal council, said that tribes, in particular, need to be doing more to encourage Indian students to enter hard science fields. At her own tribe, she and others have helped create what she called an informal “STEM mafia” whose members regularly urge tribal leaders to invest in training and education programs for students that allow them to travel and compete in advanced technology and science competitions.

The mafia tactic must be working, as Cowan noted that tribal dollars helped pay for 75 Cherokee and other Native students and advisers to attend the AISES conference. She also said the tribe is working on developing a Cherokee scholars program modeled after a successful Oklahoma state program.

“I believe there’s an inner engineer in all of us,” Cowan said, adding that tribal teachers and leaders shouldn’t be afraid to encourage students to grow up to be “nerdy Indians.”

“We are trying to make it exciting to be a nerdy Indian. We want our students to know that you can be nerdy and cool…you can be nerdy and sexy.”

Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, agreed there is a vast need for more Native students to graduate with degrees in the hard science fields.

He said the tribe is currently in the process of creating a master plan looking at what it can do to provide more incentives for students to make STEM progress.

Smith and other Indian leaders attending the AISES event said that tribal investments encouraging students to enter STEM fields can end up strengthening tribal sovereignty.

“What we really want out of education investments is leaders who can help build and create stronger tribal economies,” Smith said.

Cowan recommended many ways for AISES to help tribes succeed in their quests, including strengthening connections with tribes and not just with individual Indians who are already in the hard science fields.

In a different conference session, Ki Tecumseh, a member of the AISES board of directors, said that parents of Indian students need to be doing a better job at getting involved in their learning.

To current STEM professionals, Tecumseh suggested, “Just be there for the parents and students. And be willing to be a resource for them when you can.”

He also said that AISES members should be visiting schools with large amounts of Indians, writing letters of recommendation, and never forgetting their roots.

“You have to help those behind you to get a good start. Because they need all the help they can get.”