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American Indian high school, tribal college students conduct research with NDSU faculty

August 10, 2012 – Fargo, N.D. –With a closing ceremonial drumming and the handing out of completion certificates, Nurturing American Tribal Undergraduate Research and Education, or NATURE, wrapped up its 12th year on June 15.

Student doing researchEighteen American Indian students from four tribal colleges and five reservation high schools from North Dakota participated in the two-week program. During the camp, students worked with NDSU and University of North Dakota faculty on research projects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

Goals of the camp are to increase American Indian high school graduation rates and to encourage students to pursue STEM fields in college by tying culture to the sciences. “We’re encouraging students to go to college with this program,” said Bob Pieri, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and one of the founders of NATURE. “We try to help them figure out what they want to do or study.”

Changing the trend
According to the Department of Education, North Dakota American Indian high school graduation rates have hovered around 60 percent since 2006. Pieri hopes to keep students going through the NATURE program interested in school, especially in math and science courses.

To nurture students’ curiosity, the camp has them pick something they want to learn more about. Then they conduct hands-on research in physics, chemistry, biochemistry, mechanical engineering, computer science, agriculture engineering, food science, geosciences, microbiology or weather and climate for two weeks. The final step is to present their work to NDSU faculty.

The camp focuses on STEM because American Indians are among the groups under-represented in these disciplines. There is a national push to draw people who have diverse backgrounds and perspectives into STEM fields to drive innovation. Experts say these fields are critical for the nation to compete globally. But that doesn’t mean students have to disconnect from their culture and communities, Pieri said.

When he and others started the program, tribal colleges in North Dakota were seeing an outflow of students to larger cities. To find a way to keep students involved in their community after graduating, reinforcing culture became a main concept in NATURE. “We’re tying culture to the sciences in NATURE,” Pieri said. “We’re not trying to change who the students are to get involved in STEM programs. We just want the students to be able to relate the two.”

Katherine Ouellette, who will be a freshman majoring in nursing at Sitting Bull Community College next fall, saw the benefit of the camp. “This program is important because it gets us interested in math and science and prepares us for college-type courses,” she said.

Connecting lab work to the real world
One of the research programs students participated in was looking at drug addictions by examining fish; one that had been exposed to cocaine and one that had not.

“My favorite part of the research was looking at the fish brains under the microscope and being able to see the effects of the drugs from one fish to another,” said Logan Luger, who will be a freshman studying pre-medicine at Sitting Bull College this fall. Other students tested soil compaction and how it affects water transmission to plants or looked at the different metals that pennies are composed of and how it has changed over the years.

Not everyone was in a lab the entire camp though; some students did their research in the kitchen. “My group studied protein in chickpeas and peas as a substitute for eggs in cakes and cookies. What we researched is important because it shows alternatives to people with egg allergens, but it was fun because we got to taste all the food that we made,” said James Henry, who will be transferring from Turtle Mountain Community College to NDSU to study mechanical engineering next year.

Many of the students who participated in the program were recommended by teachers or professors in their high schools, colleges or the Sunday Academy program, where NDSU faculty provide practice in science, math and engineering once a month to the high schools. NATURE is an education outreach program sponsored by North Dakota Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or ND-EPSCoR.

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