Char-Koosta News

The Official Publication of the Flathead Nation online

August 28, 2008

SKC Science Camp searches for better ways to teach science to American Indian students

By B.L. Azure

Latrice Tatsey of the Blackfeet Nation explains the Blackfeet calendar stick to educators at the SKC science camp at Blue Bay. (Courtesy photo)
Latrice Tatsey of the Blackfeet Nation explains the Blackfeet calendar stick to educators at the SKC science camp at Blue Bay. (Courtesy photo)

BLUE BAY — America lags behind many developed nations when it comes to science education achievements by students - including American Indians - in its public schools. However, for American Indian students the lag is longer for various reasons that are often rooted in poverty and cultural nuances and differences.

In an attempt to lessen the lag for American Indian students the Big Sky Science Partnership hosted a three-day culture camp at Blue Bay recently. The camp featured field trips as well as classroom and hands-on training for Kindergarten through eighth grade teachers from areas in Montana with high numbers of American Indian students.

“The main target of the program is American Indian students,” said Gina Sievert of the Salish Kootenai College Indigenous Math and Science Institute. “Raising their science achievements is the goal.”

There was science faculty at the camp from SKC, Montana State University and the University of Montana as well as tribal consultants. There was kindergarten through eighth grade teachers from schools in Missoula, and the Flathead, Northern Cheyenne and Crow Indian reservations there. In all 50 teachers are involved in the program and 35 attended the Blue Bay camp.

Arlee Elementary School teacher Ronda Howlett asks for clarification of a question on a test at the SKC science camp at Blue Bay. (B.L. Azure photo)
Arlee Elementary School teacher Ronda Howlett asks for clarification of a question on a test at the SKC science camp at Blue Bay. (B.L. Azure photo)

Sievert said the Big Sky Science Partnership is beginning the third year of a five-year program funded by a National Science Foundation grant. The K-8 teachers and how they teach science are the carrots that the partnership is betting on to achieve the goal of improving science achievements of American Indian students.

“We are working together on how to effectively teach science to American Indian students,” Sievert said. “They are so under represented in the science field. Why? Indians were the first scientists here. Why this incongruity? It is hard to determine where the disconnect happens.”

The disconnect may lie with the lack of American Indian teachers as role models. “We can bring more culture into the curriculum but if they don’t see themselves in what people are doing will our goals be realized?” Sievert said. “It is really important to have Indian teachers, role models in the classroom.”

Another disconnect is related to the lack of knowledge that many educators have about the culture and history of American Indians. And how to effectively reach them with the lessons they are teaching.

“There is an invisible curriculum in teaching: you should know all about the community you work in and you should care about who you are teaching,” Sievert said.

Eva Boyd instructs educators on how to make mop head baskets at the SKC science camp at Blue Bay. (Courtesy photo)
Eva Boyd instructs educators on how to make mop head baskets at the SKC science camp at Blue Bay. (Courtesy photo)

Mary Jane Charlo, a Salish tribal consultant at the camp, said that understanding the culture of American Indians is vital to teaching them. Charlo said she and other tribal consultants are trying to give teachers an idea of where the students come from socially, economically and culturally. It really is a different world that for many educators can’t see like the forest fore the trees.

“I try to make the connections between the Western scientific ideas and the Indians ‘science.’ I help make cultural connections to Western science so teachers can bring that to the classroom,” Charlo said. “What non-Indians call science wasn’t called science by Indians. But what they [Indians] were doing was definitely scientific. We didn’t write things down we passed knowledge naturally, handing it down from generation to generation verbally and by hands-on.”

The natural environment was the Indians classroom, subject matter and teacher. “Indians were very aware of their surroundings, the natural world in which they lived,” Charlo said. Consequently tribal people lived in harmony with nature and moved to its lead. It was earth science in its purest form.

College educators and public school teachers were exposed to many examples of tribal scientific knowledge at camp. Time was quantified according to the changing seasons and the stars at night. Changing seasons often meant changes in scenery as tribal people moved to be near food sources. For instance Charlo said that when chokecherries started to ripen Salish people knew it was time to hunt elk. When wild rose buds bloomed it was time to go on bison hunts. The night sky was a map that Indians used for navigation and to mark seasonal changes.

Charlo said she was very satisfied with the turnout for the camp. “These teachers are not required to be here but they are,” she said. “I think that is very important because it speaks to their dedication to being good well rounded teachers. They will have some experience with Indian culture and maybe eyes will be opened to the fact that Indians are just as smart as anyone else. It will make for a positive learning environment.”

The schoolteachers will take what they learned at the camp and incorporate relevant material into their lessons. And from a cultural perspective they will also have a better idea of how to reach out to the American Indian students to help them narrow the lag in science achievements in the classroom.

Salish Kootenai College is the lead institution in the collaborative effort with Montana State University and the University of Montana. Sievert said that SKC is the only tribal college in America to receive a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The five-year partnership project focuses on different aspects of science each year. The first year was spent on geological sciences; the second focused on astronomy and this year physics is the focus.

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