- The Sharing Cycle of Science LearningConnecting Community Topics to Tribal College Lab Courses
case studies, chemistry, science, sovereignty, tribal college
Goal and Significance
The goal of the Sharing Cycle of Science Learning project is to create sustainable and culturally and locally relevant chemistry laboratory experiences at Nebraska Indian Community College (nicc) and Little Priest Tribal College (lptc). Both colleges are located in northeast Nebraska. nicc serves students living primarily on the Omaha Reservation, the Santee Sioux Reservation, and within the South Sioux City urban area. lptc primarily serves students who belong to the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and live within the Sioux City urban area. To achieve our goal of developing a two-semester chemistry sequence, the team developed a method to connect science courses with community topics after considering factors ranging from the mission of tribal colleges to an examination of effective informal science education programs for American Indian youth.
The significance of this project is that American Indian students are underrepresented in all science and engineering fields. For instance, “Native Americans and Alaska Natives” are underrepresented by almost 50 percent in chemistry as shown by the following statistics. Even though they are 1.2 percent of the US population (and 1.3 percent of Nebraska’s population1), nationally they earned 0.8 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and 0.6 percent of the PhDs in chemistry.2 Even more disparate is that Nelson and Brammer’s diversity survey found that only eight of the 2,787 (or 0.3 percent) tenure-track faculty in the Top 100 chemistry departments [End Page 131] were “American Indians, Native Alaskans, Hawaiians, or Pacific Islanders.”3 This under-representation is troubling because the fastest-growing occupations for the past half century in the United States have been dependent upon knowledge of science and mathematics.4 In addition, changes in federal policy are slowly allowing self-governance of American Indian reservations, which has stimulated the need for better trained individuals to assist in managing tribal affairs.5
Tribal College Mission and Nebraska’s Tribal Colleges
The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (aihec) and the Tribal College and University (tcu) system were created in 1973 and just celebrated their fortieth anniversary.6 There are now thirty-seven tcus (Fig. 1) serving about 20,000 students and providing services to an additional 46,000 community members. Half the institutions (19/37) are located within the Great Plains, including nicc and lptc. While reflecting on the past and future of tcus, Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and ceo of the American Indian College Fund, wrote that “tribally-specific education … can facilitate the journey of our people through colonization and dependency and into the freedom of a new cultural sovereignty.”7 To achieve this, she said, “tcus must teach students how to approach these [Western laws that govern land, water, air, energy, and natural resources] from the worldview of their tribal teachings, rather than from the worldview of mainstream society” and that “we use science, medicine, and technology as … resources for the work that our ancestors and those in the spirit world want us to do.” With these as guiding principles, tribal college faculty are charged with offering a cutting-edge education based on a tribal worldview. When students learn science in this way, they strengthen their people’s sovereignty, a necessary component for the sustenance of their native language, land, history, and culture.
nicc was chartered in 1981 by the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and the Santee Sioux Nation. In that same year, the North Central Association of Colleges approved the college for accreditation of associate degrees. The college has three campuses—in Macy, Santee, and South Sioux City. nicc instructors teach from one campus and reach students at the other two via videoteleconferencing. Of its 177 full-time students, 62 percent live on a reservation and 64 percent are women, the majority of whom have more than one dependent. Throughout its history, 90 percent of nicc’s students have been American Indians representing nine tribes. The college offers seven degree programs, including associate...