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For Native Youth, Putting STEM in Context

Could a simple shift in teaching practice help Native American students learn more about science and math? 

Elese Washines, a professor at Heritage University, a private university within the boundaries of the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington state, argues that focusing on the big picture and helping students see how their schoolwork connects to their communities and real lives could help more Native students succeed in STEM courses.

Washines suggests that using graphic organizers early on while teaching about a topic in math could help students frame concepts and understand connections between them. Washines will present research on the effectiveness of using graphic organizers such as factor trees or Venn Diagrams at the National Indian Education Association's conference this fall.  

"Graphic organizers can serve to visually organize a lot of complicated math concepts and give them a big-picture point of view," she said in an interview.

"So many times teachers go into the classroom and think of math as being in a vacuum," she said. "I press on them to make it relevant, to take it apart, to make it concrete, to empower students to formulate ideas that aren't just algorithms."

Washines said that research indicates that many Native American students gravitate toward big-picture concepts. But, she said, there is limited research on the most effective teaching practices for those working with Native students.

2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission highlighting the lack of diversity in STEM-related fields included Native Americans among the groups that are underrepresented. That's tied to a larger educational challenge: In many states, Native students are the least likely to graduate from high school and are often living in poverty and attending schools that are not well-prepared to serve them.  

Washines emphasizes such a simple approach because she has observed schools and districts that work with Native students purchasing expensive textbooks instead of focusing on actual teaching practice, without positive results.

Teachers in Bureau of Indian Education schools and other districts educating Native students are often working with shoestring budgets and in small communities. When she taught math on a tribal school, Washines said, she taught nine classes and did not have colleagues with whom she could collaborate.

"We have to find approaches that are accessible to everybody," she said.  

Cultural Education

Washines, an enrolled Yakama tribe member who teaches math to prospective teachers at Heritage University, is also focused on increasing the cultural awareness and competency of those working with Native students. For instance, she said, some Native students may be quieter in class because they have been taught to listen, but that doesn't mean they're not paying attention. "Engagement might look different," she said.

"Native students who make it to graduation, they can learn to coexist and compartmentalize different parts of their life," she said. "When you look at the end result—high drop-out rates—we're not looking at, where did this fracturing of educational values come from?"

Washines said teachers can focus on helping students find their strengths in STEM subjects and consider how those strengths can contribute to the community. That's how Washines started on her path to becoming a math teacher: In school, math class was where she thrived. "I couldn't read the way they wanted me to read or write the way they wanted me to write," she said. "Math became the way I communicated my intelligence."

But, she said, "I didn't see it as an opportunity to advance individually, but as an opportunity to pursue my strength and figure out how to serve my people."

At a showcase for students who are members of the Yakama Nation earlier this year, the Yakima Herald reported that one student presented a project focused on solar energy that had resulted in the installation of money-saving devices in a number of local homes. That kind of project, in which a student addressed a concrete problem in his community, might resonate with Native youth, Washines said. 

Washines is one of a number of educators focusing on introducing more Native students to quality STEM education by improving teacher preparation, introducing the subject early, and providing more culturally relevant education. Five tribal colleges received federal grants last year to help them build STEM facilities. The University of Idaho hosts a six-week summer program for Native American high schoolers who have demonstrated promise in STEM fields. 

Meanwhile, in Canada, elementary and middle school students are learning about STEM careers as part of an effort called inSTEM, which is focused on "local and culturally relevant STEM education" for Inuit, First Nations, and Métis students.  

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