Native American Students Interested in Engineering Should Download This Book

Courtesy Tyler Rust/ South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Pre-Engineering Education Collaborative researchers do geologic mapping along the White Clay Fault near Slim Butte on the Pine Ridge Reservation in summer 2013. They are, from left, senior engineering student Kristina Proietti; graduate student James Sanovia, who is also an instructor at Oglala Lakota College; and graduate student Micheal Tekle. The students are working with associate geology and geological engineering professor Foster Sawyer, far right, who leads the School of Mines PEEC collaborative.

Indian Country Today

Book Promotes Engineering Education to Native American Students

A book meant to encourage Native American students to consider studying engineering is available for free from Open PRAIRIE. “The PEEC Experiment: Native Hawaiian and Native American Engineering Education” has been distributed to tribal colleges as well as to universities with an engineering program that may want to collaborate with tribal schools.

The book, edited by civil engineering professor Suzette Burckhard of South Dakota State University and research associate Joanita Kant, contains articles written by Paul Boyer, Tribal College Journal founder, as well as 33 faculty, staff members and students from 16 colleges and universities.

Funding for South Dakota State University’s portion of the Pre-Engineering Education Collaborative, which began in 2010, came from a nearly $1 million National Science Foundation grant. She and faculty from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology collaborated with faculty and students at Oglala Lakota College. Each college has its own grant from the National Science Foundation, but worked collaboratively to develop a pre-engineering program at OLC.

Shaping Pre-Engineering Education

The researchers chose the title “The PEEC Experiment” to reflect the program’s investigative nature. “It’s about developing unique ways to bring the pre-engineering education component to this population,” Burckhard said in a press release. An experiment is set up to accomplish an objective, but researchers can make changes based on their observations—that fluidity is what the book’s title captures.

“Overall, researchers found that culturally relevant, research-based, hands-on teaching and learning had the greatest impact on recruiting and retaining engineering students.”

Kant said the program was structured with the tribal college and Native American students at the center. Ideally, pre-engineering students would take their first two years of classes at their local tribal college then transition to a university with an engineering program.

North Dakota State University works with five state tribal colleges and two University of Wisconsin campuses—Madison and Platteville—work with the College of Menominee Nation. The University of Hawaii at Manoa collaborates with five Native community colleges. Each research group describes its program strategies in the book.

The whole process of building connections with Oglala Lakota College was “about letting them lead and doing what works for them,” Kant said.

Empowering Native American Students, Communities

With the help of tribal and community leaders, South Dakota researchers at the three schools identified water quality, food sovereignty, affordable housing and cultural preservation as priorities. Hands-on learning projects were then integrated into the pre-engineering curriculum that address those needs. Authors of the book describe the sense of empowerment Native American students feel when tackling these problems.

One of the first Oglala Sioux tribal agencies to collaborate with PEEC researchers was the Natural Resources Regulatory Agency on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Tribal officials are concerned about how uranium mining south and west could affect soil and water quality.

Burchkard said that having tribal members take measurements and generate baseline data will help them protect their resources. “That increases tribal sovereignty and self-reliance, because if they don’t have their own evidence-based data, data from outsiders will be used,” she said. Both South Dakota universities have been involved with Oglala Lakota College in projects related to soil and water quality.

Support Networks for Native American Students

Kant pointed out that researchers learned how important community and family support is for Oglala Lakota College students. She and Burckhard noted the importance of women as community leaders and as a source of support and encouragement for Native American students.

In a chapter titled “Finding an Engineering Identity” Oglala Lakota College instructor James Sanovia, a PEEC co-principal investigator, detailed his educational journey and the challenges he has faced. He is the first—and so far only—Oglala Lakota geological engineer, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and now working toward a master’s degree from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

Sanovia and other Native American students emphasized the importance of having a support system—both at home and at the university. Having encouragement from professors and mentors helps them complete their degrees.

Burckhard hopes this book will motivate faculty from other engineering schools and tribal colleges to begin similar programs. “These collaborations must continue to be nourished,” she said.