Research News

NSF named a "Top 50 STEM Workplace" for Native Americans by AISES

American Indian Science and Engineering Society recognizes NSF's support of tribal colleges and universities

The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) has named the National Science Foundation (NSF) one of the "Top 50 STEM Workplaces" for Native Americans. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) This distinction was announced in the spring 2015 edition of Winds of Change magazine, which is AISES' national magazine on career and educational advancement. AISES receives funding from NSF.

The criteria for the "Top 50 Stem Workplaces" were developed by the Winds of Change editorial staff. The most important of these criteria was the employers' recruitment and support of American Indians, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians in STEM education and jobs.

Broadening participation

NSF works internally and externally to recruit talent from underrepresented groups, including Native American people of the U.S., into STEM education and the STEM workforce. To offer experience working at NSF for young people, NSF hires interns through several programs, including Washington Internships for Native Students (WINS), Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

Oklahoma State University undergraduate Cole Bowers of the Cherokee Nation started a WINS internship in NSF's Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI) in the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) in 2014. (The internship was arranged through American University.)

Bowers describes his NSF internship as "eye-opening." He said, "When you're actually here, you see the tremendous amount of broadening participation resources that support students and researchers from underrepresented groups. I wouldn't know about these resources without working here."

Bowers' NSF research involves data mining to help track the success rates of NSF awardees from underrepresented groups, including Native people of the U.S., towards tenure track positions. He said that this work is enabling him to "give back to my tribe."

In the accompanying video, Bowers describes his experience as an intern at NSF.

Support of tribal institutions and students through NSF programs

NSF is the principal funder of STEM programs in tribal colleges and universities, and provides significant support for STEM programs in Alaskan Native-serving institutions and Native Hawaiian-serving institutions.

Within NSF's Education and Human Resources (EHR) and Biosciences (BIO) directorates are programs that support Native people of the U.S in STEM education and research. These programs include:

  • The approximately $13.5 million Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP). TCUP is designed to produce significant, sustainable improvements in STEM teaching and research programs. TCUP awards have supported the development of two-year and four-year STEM degree programs at some institutions. They have also funded curriculum enhancement, academic enrichment, and professional development for faculty, undergraduate research and community service.

    Each TCUP project is as different as the community it serves. For example, TCUP funding is among the funding sources for the installation of a world-class wireless grid at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, N.M., and throughout a significant section of the Navajo Nation that is the size of West Virginia but was previously unplugged. This new grid will give area students access to the Internet, enable training for Internet-based jobs and help lure employers to the area.

    In addition, when Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, N.D., replaced a dilapidated science building with a new science and technology center, NSF funding helped develop the center's laboratories and fully equip them with modern tools that are now used by students for research.

    Among the STEM students served by TCUP projects are first-generation college students who might otherwise be unable to attend college or graduate school. Ashley Young is a sophomore at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz., a TCUP college. Both of Young's parents also graduated from Diné College and then earned graduate degrees. "None of this would have been possible without TCUP," said Young.

    Robin (McGee) Maxkii, a graduate of Diné College, is now attending college on the Flathead Indian Reservation, where she is dual-majoring in information technology and psychology. She was supported by QEM and TCUP for an internship last summer. She was recently selected to introduce Jill Biden at Achieving the Dream's Annual Institute on Student Success.

    The availability of resources made possible through TCUP often broadens students' perspective on STEM and STEM careers.

    Jody Chase, an NSF program director, said, "Some tribal college students have gone into medical careers because they knew doctors and nurses or have gone into education careers because they knew teachers. But TCUP is now enabling tribal college students to also learn about, dream about and pursue a STEM field as a career."

    Many graduates of TCUP programs stay in their communities after completing their education, and devote their careers to improving the quality of life in their communities. The skills of STEM professionals, particularly engineers, are sorely needed on isolated reservations where living conditions may be extreme; some even lack running water and electricity. Native Americans who are educated in STEM have an opportunity to help improve access to modern conveniences without violating cultural and traditional mores.
  • The approximately $8 million Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program. AGEP supports the national goal of increasing the numbers of underrepresented minorities, including Native people of the U.S., entering and completing graduate education and postdoctoral training, and entering academic STEM careers. The objective of AGEP is to study, develop, implement and disseminate innovative graduate education and postdoctoral training models designed to improve the participation, preparation and success of underrepresented minorities in STEM.

In addition, EHR's Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings funds a research project aimed at identifying factors that help American Indians and Alaskan Natives succeed in STEM education and careers.

Janet Page-Reeves of the University of New Mexico, a co-leader of the research team, said, "We are excited about what we are finding. We believe that we are discovering evidence for simple things that help promote success, like social support or types of programming. But we also believe that we are finding some interesting social and cultural dimensions of success that promise to challenge current thinking about participation in STEM by Native people of the U.S."

Part of this study will draw on a rich AISES archive that contains 35 years of various types of information on more than 6,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native STEM students. Because this archive was not originally collected for research purposes, an important and complex component of the research project involves preparing it for empirical analysis.

This research is being conducted through a partnership between AISES, the Office of Community Health at the University of New Mexico and Northwestern University.

NSF-wide programs

Two NSF-wide programs that support STEM students from varied backgrounds, including Native people of the U.S., are the Graduate Research Fellowship Program and the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Sites and Supplements program. A $480,000 REU project site at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., funds undergraduate students and science teachers to conduct independent research projects, present their results at scientific conferences and publish them in scientific journals. Research supported by this REU site focuses on issues that are critical to tribal lands in the Northern Plains such as restoration ecology, integrated bison prairie management and the effects of oil development on natural resources.

Opportunities in biosciences

  • BIO's Division of Biological Infrastructure funds the approximately $900,000 Lighting the Pathway Program to Faculty Careers for Natives in STEM, which is designed to increase the representation of American Indians and Alaskan Natives in tenure-track academic positions. The program, which is implemented by AISES, provides varied resources to a select group of American Indian and Alaskan Native STEM undergraduate and graduate students.

    These resources include opportunities to participate in intellectual experiences and guidance to build practical skills. This support is intended to prepare and to inspire participants to stay in their STEM field--so they will earn the necessary academic credentials to land tenure-track positions at U.S. colleges and universities.

    Sally O'Connor, an NSF program director, describes this program, which kicked off in 2014, as "a very bold effort that if proven successful, can make a difference in the numbers of Native faculty in U.S. universities and colleges."
  • BIO's Office of Emerging Frontiers has awarded a cumulative total of approximately $200,000 to the Geospatial Information Technologies (GIT) Program at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in New Mexico, which is a National Indian Community College. GIT offers training on using geospatial information--an important tool in natural resources management. The program is designed to help Native people of the U.S. acquire skills in remote sensing to address climate change on their lands, which are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts such as drought, and to promote their participation in STEM research and education.

Other supportive activities

NSF also engages in outreach activities to institutions that serve Native people of the U.S. Among these are visits to tribal colleges and universities to discuss with faculty and students opportunities for conducting NSF-funded research.