Life

These Revolutionary Programs Are Helping Native American Kids Chase Careers In Science, Technology, And Engineering


Uproxx knows that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines are driving the future of this planet forward. Every day, we see new ideas, fresh innovations, and bold trailblazers in these fields. Follow us this month as we highlight how STEM is shaping the culture of NOW.

When you look at your own life, you were probably never successful in something you weren’t excited about.

-Professor Herb Schroeder, Ph.D.

Many of us grew up in the era of “no child left behind.” It’s such an amazing sentiment. We are one of the richest nations on earth. Doing better, especially by our kids, should be inalienable. Yet, kids still are being left behind; in fact, it’s distressingly common and far too often overlooked. Among these forgotten children are tens of thousands of Americans born into poverty on American Indian Reservations.

In an overly-alarmist world, the statistics on Native American students should absolutely be cause for alarm. Only 67 percent of Native Americans graduate from high school. The national average is 80 percent. Only 26 percent of those Native Americans will enroll in college, with ten percent achieving a four-year degree. That’s a vertigo-inducing drop in a nation with a national average of 69% enrollment. There’s a long list of reasons for the low retention rate — poverty, sexual abuse, mental disorders, violence, substance abuse, and suicide all play a role. Native American kids live with these trials every day, at levels that The New York Times called “off the scale.”

Yet, there is hope on the horizon. Native Americans graduation rates have seen an uptick since the 1970s. More Native kids are going to college now than ever before. There’s opportunity afoot. Much of this opportunity comes from private foundations, teachers, and corporations that are working to provide solutions outside of the system. Programs like Professor Herb Schroeder’s Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP) fill gaps and offers hope to young people eager for knowledge. This initiative and others offer a lifeline in the form of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics training. In doing so, these passionate educators are helping spark what could and should become one of the great American comeback stories.

An Awakening In Alaska

The Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program, or ANSEP, started out in 1995 to help Native youth get excited about school, get into college, and find a career, via the avenues provided within STEM education. 22 years later, they’re still going strong and have made some seriously impressive strides by helping isolated and economically depressed Native Americans find a bright future in the modern world.

What separates ANSEP from a high school program or a summer camp is that they start working with students in the sixth grade and continually work with the same students all the way through their tertiary education, until they have real jobs in the real world. It’s comprehensive and it’s completely free for the kids.

The aforementioned Professor Herb Schroeder, Ph.D., who co-founded ANSEP, remains thrilled about the doors that STEM education can open for Native American kids. But he doesn’t pull punches about the pushback he’s gotten. He notes that there’s still a lot of incredulity as to whether Native kids — or Native adults for that matter — can excel in STEM-related fields.

“There are a lot of people bringing biases to the table who still don’t believe Native people have the intellectual capacity to do science and engineering,” he says. “There are people who don’t want Natives in the education system or in the workplace.”

It’s a report of blatant bigotry from a man who has been on the front lines — but Native Americans still face this level of discrimination every day. Luckily, as any STEM mathematician knows: Numbers don’t lie. Schroeder and his team have had 22 years to prove all the biases, assumption, and even racist tendencies wrong. And they’ve smashed plenty of misconceptions in the process.

ANSEP currently runs a three-tiered system. The first step is a middle school program.

“You have to start young and inspire children so they’re excited about science and engineering,” Schroeder says.

To do so, ANSEP flies in 54 kids from around Alaska’s Native Corporations (they abolished their reservation system under Nixon in ’71) to Anchorage. As soon as they arrive, the kids are tasked with building a PC computer from parts. This usually takes two days. After that, the kids spend ten days in hands-on classes in science, tech, engineering, and math. At the end of this period, the kids are allowed to take their new, hand-built PCs home. They also sign a pledge stating that they’ll complete Algebra I by the time they graduate eighth grade.

“77 percent of our kids actually accomplish this — compared to 26 percent of kids nationwide,” Schroeder says with pride in his voice.

Those numbers are undeniable. The fact is, America used to be a leader in math and sciences, but we’ve been ranking lower and lower year-over-year in those categories. The fact that ANSEP is delivering at a rate three times higher than the national average is hugely impressive.

ANSEP’s programs continue throughout middle school into high school. They provide summer courses where kids are put into STEM teams and tasked with building drones or giant Rube-Goldberg machines alongside more hands-on classes in STEM fields. By the time they reach high school, Schroeder notes that “95 percent of high school students move up a full class level every time they participate in the summer academy.”

Again, these are real world advances in which kids are making tangible progress. Schroeder tells us that these kids often come from communities with less than 100 kids in their schools and an almost non-existent educational infrastructure, much less adjunct support systems.

Professor Michele Yatchmeneff, Ph.D., works at the University of Alaska (Anchorage) and teaches ANSEP kids in the summers. She got into STEM-related fields as an ANSEP scholar and attended the same programs as a young student that she now helps to teach.

“Average students are arriving at university needing one to two years of high school/remedial coursework in order to begin taking their first year of STEM courses,” she says. “That’s a huge dream crusher and that most students eventually drop out.”

ANSEP disrupts this cycle. Yatchmeneff sees kids going off to college who are “hyper-prepared” and already ahead of many first-year university milestones. They’ve completed college credit level courses through ANSEP’s high school academy programs and are ready to dive deeper into STEM.

Having studied with ANSEP herself, Yatchmeneff was able to emphasize and connect with kids in the program.

“For these kids, belonging plays a big role,” she explains. “I find that the biggest challenge is helping Alaska Native students feel like they belong in precollege STEM environments.”

Yatchmeneff notes that just helping Native kids grow more aware of the world of STEM is a huge accomplishment.

“That’s the biggest reward,” she says, “seeing the students push through barriers they sometimes don’t even know exist, really excel, and become hyper-prepared for STEM degrees.”

The final step of ANSEP’s longitudinal program is a big one: a university education. They open up their campus to STEM students and provide up to 20 percent funding for college tuition. Moreover, ANSEP aligns students with research projects and summer internships that are paid — so that these college students can afford school in the first place.

Overall, Schroeder cites that ANSEP university students have a “75 percent” retention and graduation rate. That’s compared to roughly a 60 percent graduation rate nationwide and less than 20 percent in other Native American communities. Here again, the numbers speak volumes.

University of Alaska Anchorage student Tvetene Carlson went through the STEM programs provided by ANSEP and still finds them to be a crucial part of his everyday life and study. He comes from a small town along the Denali highway with just over 200 residents. Finding opportunities outside of town was crucial to building a wider community and pursuing an education in a world that will benefit his family and community.

“My school back home is very small. I graduated with 17 other students,” he says. “A STEM-based education will help my family by providing me with a stable income which I can take back home.”

In America, a micro-sized school community often means less funding and heavier reliance on outside systems to bolster educational resources. Carlson had to go outside of his community for a broader education and ANSEP offered that avenue. He learned about the middle school programs through an ad sent to his local school. After having completed multiple summer programs, high school programs, and now university programs he can’t image the world without STEM in his life.

“It gives me legitimacy in the eyes of the larger society,” Carlson says. “Not to mention the direct benefits of working as an engineer to build infrastructure for our Native corporation and in my hometown.”

Since Carlson is about to graduate (with an engineering degree), the future is on his mind. He leaves the ANSEP program with hope for the future, and a huge amount of practical knowledge.

“The aspect of STEM I care about the most is the usefulness it has in telling us information about the world,” he says. “And how we can use this information to build a better world.”

This work is obviously important, but it’s also expensive. There are over 100 partners that ANSEP and Schroeder have cultivated since 1995. Their endowment partners look at this whole program very simply: Every dollar they spend, they’re investing in a future employee. The kids get an education in STEM that they don’t have to pay back and, oftentimes, a job at the end of it all. This often means upward mobility in a place where that has often felt nonexistent.

Professor Yachtmeneff is a testament to where that money has gone and the jobs that have come with it. She tells us about working as an environmental engineer in “several small Alaskan communities helping with their water/wastewater needs.”

Now she’s working with student interns on research projects — both state and federal — collecting data on fish, wildlife, and plants. It’s a real world job that might not always be fully understood by the general public, but it’s a crucial part of keeping our water clean and making sure that wildlife is correctly protected.

Professor Schroeder is filled with pride when he talks about the successes of the kids who’ve gone through ANSEP and found a future in STEM, but there’s still plenty of fatherly concern as well. These same kids are still encountering people unwilling to accept Native Americans in wider roles in American life. The hope — and it’s a worthy one — is that programs like ANSEP will change all of that.

“If you look at the problems plaguing inner-city kids, or kids in rural Appalachia, or the kids on Indian Reservations, they’re the same problems,” he says. “Our model is meant to be adaptive. We’ve proven we can improve education outcomes and reduce costs to get kids better educations from middle school through university. The money people donate to us is [a] great investment in those kids, but it’s also in investment in society because an educated society is something we all need.”

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Slowly but surely, programs like ANSEP are popping up around the lower 48 to support Native youth in STEM. High Schools like Navajo Prep have helped to usher kids into STEM courses with extra assistance that can help keep kids on track and prepare them for a college education in the sciences without hitting that remedial spiral mentioned by Professor Yachtmeneff.

Likewise, universities are beginning to offer special assistance programs for Native American students across the nation. The University of Arizona has had success with NASEP (Native American Science and Engineering Program). Their program is a year-long academic outreach that aims to “catalyze the student’s motivation to complete chemistry, physics, and pre-calculus before graduating high school.” The program is part of their larger Early Academic Outreach program — offering pathways for students to get into U of A.

In New Mexico and Colorado, the American Indian Science And Engineering Society (AISES) runs a program similar to ANSEP. It’s a longitudinal program that stretches from high school students all the way through career placement.

Recently, AISES received a 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation to create the “Lighting the Pathway to Faculty Careers for Natives in STEM.” This has allowed them to “create an intergenerational community of undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and junior and senior faculty members.” It’s a comprehensive avenue for creating a world where a STEM education and jobs are a reality for Native American, Native Alaskan, and Native Hawaiian kids.

Cody Sifford is an AISES beneficiary and member of the Navajo nation.

“I grew up in a rural area of Eastern Montana where school budgets are lower and learning opportunities outside the school are few and far between,” he says. “But my parents pushed me to live using my brain instead of my back.”

Sifford recounts having math and science teachers who were passionate about their subjects but doesn’t remember connecting fully with the idea of STEM-related education until he was already in college.

“My passion for the sciences were really instilled by recreational activities that my family did,” he says. “We spent a lot of time outdoors camping and fishing, often in remote areas in the mountains. That’s where I really feel I started becoming curious about the environment and wanting answers for why the way things were in these scenic areas.”

This initial curiosity caught flame for Sifford when he took an environmental science class. He finally started to get answers to all those questions he sought as a young kid in the woods with his folks. Eventually, professors started forwarding Sifford pamphlets about courses and opportunities with groups like AISES. Sifford took the opportunities and ended up with an internship with NASA (yes the NASA) at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama and the National Space Science Technology Center.

Sifford would end up getting an advanced degree from the University of Washington and has taken a job in the forestry department for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in northwest Montana. His work balances science with traditional Native American land stewardship practices.

“Traditional ecological knowledge — or TEK — is a part of management practices and that makes what I do unique,” he notes. “For example, traditional areas where cultural practices were conducted or where specific traditional plants occur, are protected or managed differently than other areas. These areas or practices are passed down through the years and are now parts of a tribes’ management plan.”

Sifford is in the unique position to use his STEM background and his Native American heritage to help better understand, manage, and protect the nature that’s important to all of us with more efficiency and efficacy.

“Being Native American, I feel an inherited responsibility and respect. I feel that Natives — and aboriginal people in general — have such a strong bond with nature that it feels right to be a part of the scientific community,” he continues. “Tribes were so successful in surviving in their environment because they became natural scientists by studying and observing their surroundings. I am proud to have that as a part of my heritage and I try to learn as much as I can.”

Get Involved + Photos

You can donate to groups like ANSEP and AISES to help Native kids find STEM field paths out of often dire situations. Support for these programs will also help show the wider world that these avenues don’t have to only apply to Indian Reservations, but can be applied to any low-income or at-risk communities around America (or the world) to help get kids into STEM-related educations and find long-lasting careers that allow them to help build a brighter future for us all.

Zach Johnston grew up in the Washington state’s Native American community and writes about food, travel, and social issues. You can find him on Twitter.
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