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Montana State University Graduate Makes Science Lessons Culturally Relevant

After Dora Hugs enrolled in a Montana State University program designed to strengthen science education for Native American students, the science teacher at St. Charles Mission School in Pryor, Montana, and member of the Crow tribe decided to invite Crow elders into her classroom.

"One elder related a story about how our ancestors knew about the stars," she said. "Another elder showed how she was taught to tell the longest day of the year and the shortest day of the year."

Hugs said her MSU classes emphasized the importance of making science lessons culturally relevant. The approach was successful, she added, because "the students saw that (science) wasn't just the teacher's point of view."

For these and other efforts, Hugs, 60, was recently named Outstanding Non-traditional Student in the Western United States. She is the first student ever nominated by MSU for the outstanding non-traditional student award.

"Dora Hugs' commitment to her community, students and culture is evident in all that she has accomplished," said Kim Obbink, director of MSU's Extended University and one of several administrators who nominated Hugs for the award. "She has sought to further her own education with a goal to bring knowledge and resources to her students and community."

The award has made Hugs feel like her efforts have been worthwhile.

"I'm really proud of it," she said. "It tells me that working hard pays off. I feel really good about it, like I've done something valuable."

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Hugs has a wealth of experience in the classroom. She began working as a teacher's aide in Pryor about 35 years ago. Several years later, and in addition to raising a family, she began taking college courses. She received a degree in elementary education from MSU-Billings in 1993 while continuing to work as a substitute teacher. In 2007, Hugs enrolled in the Big Sky Science Partnership at MSU, which strengthens science instruction in Native American communities in Montana by helping teachers in these communities gain more expertise with science. Hugs later completed the Master of Science in Science Education Program at MSU while continuing to work as a full-time teacher. She graduated from MSU with a master's last August and is now the Crow language and science teacher at St. Charles Mission School.

Hugs' motivation for enrolling in the Big Sky Science Partnership was a desire to help her students.

"I was looking for a way to better teach my children—my students—and the program really helped me do that," she said. "I was able to help my students feel like science is part of their lives, even outside of class. That was the biggest thing I realized."

Approaching science lessons from her own cultural perspective also gives Hugs more confidence when teaching science.

"That really helped me because before I felt like science wasn't part of my culture."

Most importantly, her students have responded well to the new approach, Hugs said.

"It makes them more engaged," she said. "It makes the lessons theirs. They now know, 'Our ancestors knew these same things.' They have ownership of it."

This story originally appeared in the spring 2011 issue of the MSU Collegian.