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NATURE program transforms students, educators

“It’s all about expanding horizons for students,” explained Robert Pieri, professor in mechanical engineering at NDSU and long-time advocate, as he talked about the effect of the Nurturing American Tribal Undergraduate Research and Education, or NATURE, program. “You open the door, see who wants to get curious, and then give students the opportunity to explore.”

Beginning June 4, the tribal college campuses across the state of North Dakota, North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota open up their doors to middle-school though recent graduate, tribal college students and their K-12 instructors, cultural experts and tribal college faculty for a series of collaborative STEM outreach programs called NATURE. Participants take part in University Summer Camps held at both NDSU and UND, followed by Tribal College Summer Camps held in June and/or July of each year. The Sunday Academies, workshops hosting NDSU and UND faculty at the tribal colleges, are held throughout the school year at the five tribal colleges in North Dakota, including Cankdeska Cikana Community College, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, Sitting Bull College, Turtle Mountain Community College and United Tribes Technical College.

The NATURE program is a North Dakota EPSCoR-sponsored education outreach program. NATURE aims to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education among North Dakota tribal college and middle/high school students and to build a pathway for the pursuit of careers in STEM disciplines. NATURE builds on activities of a long-term collaboration between North Dakota tribal colleges, NDSU and UND.

Austin Allard is currently the American Indian STEM student mentor in the NDSU EPSCoR office. He recalls his days as a high school student in the Sunday Academies fondly. Attending the academies from his sophomore to senior years in high school, Austin took part in at least 15 of the events.

“The academies were my first introduction to the research process,” he said. “We learned about how to identify a problem, determined the steps to study it, and then came up with solutions based on what we learned. It was during the Sunday Academies that I first became interested in engineering. After graduating from high school, I enrolled in classes at NDSU studying civil engineering.”

Austin is an example of many students whose curiosity was captured at the right time in their lives and nurtured by NATURE. According to Jean Ostrom-Blonigen, ND EPSCoR Project Administrator, “the NATURE programs have enjoyed success because dedicated K-12 instructors and faculty members across all seven campuses continue to work together to develop exciting and culturally relevant STEM lessons for each of these age groups.”

Culminating his NATURE experiences, Allard has recently accepted a role with the NDSU EPSCoR office and is working with longtime camp coordinator and mentor Pieri. Having worked with countless students, Pieri will soon mark his 30th year of teaching and has been a part of the NATURE program from the start.

“Little things can change a student’s trajectory,” Pieri said. “NATURE offers an experiential program that provides students with an opportunity to meet with professors, get some time doing research and get a flavor for what a STEM career can be. It’s a win/win for the university and tribal college faculty because they can see what’s available and gain a better understanding of what the students need.”

About NATURE

Currently supported by a North Dakota and National Science Foundation NSF EPSCoR Track-1 Cooperative Agreement, the NATURE programs were originally part of an informal agreement between the NDSU Colleges of Engineering and Architecture and Turtle Mountain Community College, Belcourt, North Dakota, in 1998. Back then, a team of NDSU STEM faculty worked with the tribal colleges in North Dakota to enhance ways to increase the STEM educational opportunities for American Indian students. Their efforts paid off according to Carol Davis, former academic dean, vice president and acting president at Turtle Mountain Community College, when in partnership with NDSU, the college was awarded a five-year grant from the Office of Naval Research to support activities designed to stimulate the interest of American Indian youth from tribal reservations in North Dakota in careers such as engineering and those involving higher level mathematics, science and technology skills.

From the initial project, the team developed and implemented activities including the Summer Camps, Sunday Academy, workshops for tribal college faculty and a scholarship program to create new pathways for American Indian students to pursue STEM education and obtain careers in those fields. This project also received support from the NASA PACE program in 2002-2005, ND EPSCoR FLITE equipment funding from 2001-2004, and an NSF BRIDGES program planning grant, 2004.

After the funding from the Office of Naval Research ended in 2005, ND EPSCoR took the program completely under its wing, calling it NATURE. Many improvements have occurred during the subsequent years including enhancements to quality and expansion of participation for the programs. In addition a new EPSCoR Tribal Colleges Liaison position was created to improve the effectiveness of university-tribal college communication and collaboration.

Today, at the University Summer Camps, separate tracks for faculty and students have been developed and are held during the first two weeks of June each year. The faculty track is held at NDSU where tribal college faculty and K-12 instructors work together with NDSU and UND faculty to develop seven distinct lessons for the Sunday Academy programming, which are taught one Sunday each month during the academic year at the Tribal Colleges.

Chad Ulven, NDSU professor in mechanical engineering, has played an instrumental role in developing some of the Sunday Academies in earlier days. He said, “It was a lot of fun for university faculty to take their research concepts and expose the middle and high school students to our research and see the light bulbs go on. The students could see how research—from a college or university just down the road—was impacting problems throughout the world. The excitement in the students when they understand those concepts, and what was possible for them, is amazing.”

NDSU biological sciences faculty Britt Heidinger and Julia Bowsher are currently responsible for this program. During the student track of the University Summer Camps, students visit NDSU and UND STEM laboratories and engage in small, focused research projects of their choosing with the NDSU and UND faculty and graduate students.

The Tribal College Summer Camps are one to two-week camps held at each of the five tribal colleges in North Dakota, who host their local tribal middle and high school students. NATURE Coordinators include:

  • Chris Dahlen, Cankdeska Cikana Community College
  • Kerry Hartman, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College
  • Mandy Guinn, United Tribes Technical College
  • Mafany Ndiva Mongoh, Sitting Bull College
  • Gary Thomas, Turtle Mountain Community College

Miles Pfahl, until recently an instructor at Turtle Mountain, worked with the program from the very beginning. “This has been an incredibly rewarding experience since the initial days,” he said. “At first, we were lucky to get 10 students at a Sunday Academy and we had to find ways such as serving a really good lunch to bribe them to attend. But soon it became very popular and grew into something quite incredible. In fact today, we have even added additional dates to facilitate as many students as we can through the program.”

Chris Dahlen, a math instructor at Cankdeska Cikana, notes that “NATURE has afforded many students the opportunity to expand their horizons throughout their high school and college years. Many students have stepped right out of middle school and into the NATURE tribal college camp, it is there that we are able to create and nurture an appreciation for science.”

Mentoring is Key

Tyson Jeannotte is also a former Sunday Academy and NATURE Camp student, and remembers the first time he attended an Academy event. “I was in 6th grade. That’s what got me interested in science.” Like Allard, Jeannotte is serving today as the EPSCoR Native American Success in Science and Engineering mentor for UND EPSCoR and recently graduated from UND with his masters’ degree in environmental engineering. Just as Jeannotte credits his advisors and mentors, he also notes it is one of the things he most enjoys in his current role as a mentor. “I’ve made good friends through the NATURE camps, and working with faculty and students is one of my favorite things,” he said. “The kids look up to me, and I want it to be a good experience for them.”

Pfahl notes that catching students at just the right point in their lives is critical to their ongoing success. “There is a point where a high school senior has to make the choice with what they are going to do with their life. Linking them to a program like NATURE provides a bridge to higher education and a great career. But we need to lay the groundwork for that in the years up to their senior years or we lose them.”

While Pfahl has moved on to other educational pursuits, he notes that the NATURE program has evolved into a smooth running and effective program. He recommended implementing a high school senior-only program and additional Summer Camp options to ensure that the maximum number of students continue to be reached.

Kelly Rusch, executive director, ND EPSCoR State Office, commented, “The NATURE program defines STEM leadership across generations. From middle school to graduate school to ND EPSCoR employment, both Austin and Tyson embody the partnership between students and educators across the state in accomplishing a the goals of building and broadening the STEM pipeline.”

Continuing the Research

A nonprofit organization formed in 2014 to promote research in indigenous communities, the Tribal Nation Research Group, will begin studying the effectiveness of the NATURE program in improving math skills, with plans to look at written English skills in the next phase. Although former students, such as Allard and Jeannotte, attest to the positive impact of the program, the research emphasis underscores the value of NATURE to the state as a multi-faceted program that impacts students and instructors in many positive ways not originally intended. Previous NATURE Program Coordinator Eakalak Khan noted that his time with the program taught him much about how the NATURE programs fit well with his research into environmental mediation, clean water and waste mitigation.

“My work has always focused on helping people across the globe ensure they have access to the basics: clean water and a healthy environment,” Khan said. “NATURE has given me so many connections with students and instructors throughout the years and its early impact on my career included helping me earn an NSF Career Grant in 2005.”

Scott Hanson, ND EPSCoR tribal colleges liaison manager, is now the coordinator of the NATURE program. A former researcher and biological sciences teacher, Hanson has been instrumental in coordinating the program with the tribal colleges and universities, working with faculty, mentors, students and facilities to ensure a smooth and meaningful experience for students. “My aim is to maximize the effectiveness of the NATURE program with the goal of analyzing and integrating best practices to foster positive outcomes for Native American students pursuing STEM disciplines,” he said.

Capturing the imagination of young students, providing opportunities to explore and ask questions, offering guidance about potential careers, connecting to people who are active in the field: it’s the purpose of NATURE and the reason so many people have been passionate supporters for decades. “When your focus is the students,” Pieri said, “it changes things, for everyone.”

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