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Science Can Set You Free! STEM Program Teaches Sustainable Building

This STEM outreach program has students getting a taste of campus life, doing energy audits, and identifying mold in homes.
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Eleven high school students and one recent college grad from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota are looking at homes in their community from a new perspective following their month-long participation in the Sustainable Building Research Experience and Mentoring program at the University of Colorado Boulder.

This STEM outreach program, funded by the National Science Foundation and the university, is headed up by John Zhai, a professor and researcher on building systems engineering at CU-Boulder. The program grew out of his work developing new, more efficient, sustainable building materials for houses.

Over the past three years Zhai and his colleagues have worked with 36 students and seven teachers from tribal communities, giving them hands-on experiences that included, this year, building a straw bale wall, making air quality monitors to identify mold in homes, doing energy audits, getting a taste of life on a university campus and having the opportunity to meet American Indian professionals in STEM fields.

Courtesy Anna Segur

Pictured, from left, are: Leo Campbell, Winnebago; Bobbie Knispel; Joe White Horse IV, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; and Ben Whiting, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, learning about solar panels and measuring the electricity being generated.

The first week students stayed on campus where they went to seminars, met with faculty and were introduced to college-level research. “We pushed them to do research with an emphasis on doing things correctly, following protocols and being thorough,” Wyatt Champion, CU-Boulder graduate student and lead instructor for the program, said.

Bobbie Knispel, a teacher from Todd County High School who accompanied the students, said, “The program was a great tool for giving them a sense of what college life might be like.”

For the second week, students traveled to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana where they did energy audits under the instruction of Leo Campbell, Winnebago, a certified building analyst with the Building Performance Institute, and checked for mold in eight homes.

Tanner McCloskey, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and Mahpiya Spotted Tail, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, performing an energy audit and measuring air infiltration rates with the blower door at a home on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

Champion says one of the best parts of the program was that “we were able to give back to the community by giving each home a report about how they could save energy by making simple repairs, and if their home was moldy, specifically which room and how they could fix that.”

Students then took their new skills back to their own reservation to look at housing conditions there and to do energy audits. Zhai said conserving energy is critical on reservations. “Residents don’t have to pay the construction costs for their homes, but they do have to pay the utility costs. In the past we have found utilities could be a significant expense, as much as one-quarter or one-third of a family’s income. If we can reduce utility costs, it would be a huge benefit to the tribal community.”

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One way to do that is through energy audits, weatherization of existing homes, and giving people the information they need to make their homes more efficient. “Some of the most impoverished homes in the country are on Indian reservations,” Campbell said. “Utility prices are up 20 percent in the last few years. We need to make homes energy efficient.” That is especially true, he said, if tribes are going to pursue renewable energy development.

Courtesy Wyatt Champion

Leo Campbell, field coordinator and instructor, contemplates and discusses results of the energy audits performed by students participating in University of Colorado Boulder’s Sustainable Building Research Experience and Mentoring program.

Another way is by designing houses to be energy efficient in the first place, said Zhai, who has been working on that challenge. One part of the solution is to create housing that accommodate people’s preferences. He said a survey on the Crow Reservation showed that people wanted large houses with four or five bedrooms and two bathrooms, rather than the two- or three-bedroom houses Zhai had been designing.

“Secondly, we have to look at the materials,” he said. “In the past we looked at materials that we commonly use in other settings, but here we want to look at some local materials, such as compacted earth block. People are interested in increasing their local economies by developing the materials locally rather than buying them somewhere else.”

“Also, we were interested to find out that houses on the reservation are often built by local people, by non-professionals. All the techniques we talk about today have professional contractors and installers to do the work. However, [on the reservations] they are working in their spare time, people volunteer to build a house, so we have to use technologies that non-professionals can build.”

2015 Sustainable Building Research Experience and Mentoring program students and staff (left to right): Danny McGee; Leo Campbell, Winnebago; Siti Faisal, Victoria Miller, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Mahpiya Spotted Tail, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Sydney Horse Looking, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Katie Morrison, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Buzz Jordan, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Bobbie Knispel; Wyatt Champion; Marcus Littlewolf; Ben Whiting, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Kaia Sharkey, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Chris Fast Horse, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Joe White Horse IV, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Sky Iron Shell, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; and Tanner McCloskey, Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

That question of what people can do—human capacity—is one that Campbell sees as critical to programs such as this one. “We want to inspire [our students] to get into engineering. We need to bring more engineers into the BIA and onto reservations. We want to show that these things can be done; we’re doing them. We’re building human assets within tribal communities.”

And this program is succeeding in moving in that direction. Four or five students from previous years are already studying STEM subjects at colleges including Oglala Lakota College and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

The students who participated in this summer’s program will complete the posters describing their research this fall and submit them to NSF. If they make the grade, they will go to Washington, D.C. in February to present their work.

As for college, Zhai says, “Before this whole program I never realized the gap between universities and the tribal life of students and the students’ own understanding of college. As a professor, we know there’s a lot of resources available for tribal students, like university scholarships and fellowships. As universities we’re looking for somebody to support, to give them money.” One more reason programs like this one are so important.

Students work on creating posters about their engineering research for the NSF conference in February. Pictured, from left, are: Buzz Jordan, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Victoria Miller, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Sydney Horse Looking, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Marcus Littlewolf; Chris Fast Horse, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Tanner McCloskey, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Wyatt Champion; Ben Whiting, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; and Joe White Horse IV, Rosebud Sioux Tribe.