STEM Learning

By Mallory Black and Christina Cala / Native Health News Alliance

STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math education, is at the top of many educators’ agendas. But what if improving those numbers had more to do with the community than the classroom? A team of researchers in one study are looking at just that among Native American children in Chicago, whose understanding of science may come more from their culture than test tubes and lab coats.

In 2005, a study by the group found that children of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin had earned their highest test scores in science in the fourth grade, but by eighth grade, their scores dropped dramatically. Researchers are trying to do something to change that. Reporters Mallory Black and Christina Cala have more.


Sound: Tink, tink, tink… (sound carries under)

MBLACK01: It’s 40 degrees outside, and the perfect weather for tapping a maple tree.

Sound: Tink tink tink….

MBLACK02: The process is fairly simple. You’ll need a drill, a hammer, a spiel, a plastic bag, and a maple tree that’s at least 40 feet tall. Luckily for the 10 people at the American Indian Center of Chicago, the maple tree out front fits the criteria.

SUKODOVICH01: “This brazen bit is probably one of the oldest drill designs, and its 2014 and we still use it, it still works.”

MBLACK03: That’s Eli Sukodovich. He leads Indigenous Science Days at the Center on Saturdays.

SUKODOVICH02: “Some tribes like the Potawatami will actually cut in a v-groove, and their spiels are almost like ramps and they go right into a basket. Old technology it’s still new, still relevant.”

MBLACK04: This is the second year he and the kids have tapped the maple tree in front of the Center. Eli is the Project Coordinator and teaches land-based science, where Native American kids learn how their traditions are inherently scientific.

Sound: Tree sap begins to flow

Eli: “Look it, guys! It’s startin!”

Felicia: “You guys want to taste it?”

Kid: “I do.”

Eli: “Here, dip your finger right at the spiel.”

MBLACK05: Eli has been working with the American Indian Center and the Menominee Indian tribe of Wisconsin for the past eight years. He and his research partners are trying to understand how Native culture influences STEM learning, one tapped tree at a time.

SUKODOVICH03: “What we just did out there was a botany lesson, chemistry, did a little math, incorporated a lot of things, but all anyone thought about when you think about it, it’s maple tapping. We’re showing our community and others that our science is embedded in what we do, it’s embedded in our stories, it’s embedded in our practices. We may not call it science, we may not call it math or call it chemistry, we call it cooking, we call it tapping a maple, but there’s still science involved.”

MBLACK06: Eli works with Dr. Douglas Medin, a cognitive psychology professor at Northwestern University. Their study, Living in Relationships, was funded by the National Science Foundation in an attempt to understand why Native people are underrepresented in STEM fields. Medin says that Menominee fourth graders scored above average in science but by eighth grade their scores slipped. Science had become their worst subject.

MEDIN01: “That’s what made us wonder what’s going on? We started to consider that you’re asked to adopt an alien perspective or at a minimum a fair amount of instruction may just tell kids that their everyday experience is irrelevant.”

MBLACK07: What Medin’s team proposes is that it may have something with how kids understand science within the Native American culture. In the study, they asked both Native and European American parents what they thought was important for their children to learn about nature.

MEDIN02: “European American parents, they say things like ‘I want my child to respect nature and know that they have a responsibility to take care of nature.’ But in sharp contrast, the Native American parents and grandparents are much more likely to say ‘I want my child to realize they are a part of nature. So this dimension of psychological distance between humans and nature is one big dimension of difference.”

MBLACK08: The first few years of their work involved a lot of conversation back and forth with community members about what science is, and trial and error to develop science curriculum for the kids.

SOUND: Powwow music… under

SOUND: “Hello everybody, thank you for coming out tonight to our intro to powwow, we have a special guest”… audio down

MBLACK09: One activity they came up with is to teach though traditional powwow classes, where kids learn stories about nature through dance and song. On a Thursday night at the Center, a room of 20 kids and their parents watched two powwow dancers from different generations.

Dominique Cisneros Watson, a 19-year-old Powwow dancer performed a grass dance in the middle of the room. The story goes that scouts would dance on the grass to flatten it, so they could set up their camp on level ground for the night.

WATSON01: “The whole culture makes me see nature a little differently. We’re taught, like to definitely respect the earth and take what we need and no more than that.”

Sound: Powwow music fade out

POCHEL01: “In westernized science they don’t see our stories as science, they label them like myths so they’re not looked at or viewed as important because they’re like folk tales.”

MBLACK10: That’s Fawn Pochel, a science facilitator at the Center. She has two kids who attend the powwow classes and Indigenous Science Days.

POCHEL02: “Science is in some ways catching up to things we already knew, so the discovery of the Higgs-Boson atom saying that there’s one particle in everything that makes it hard. You know one of the kids said, well, in Lakota we call that ”metakakuweiawasum” which means all of my relations. The kids participating in the programming now, we’re trying to teach them we can be the people making scientific breakthroughs in America.”

MBLACK11: Another researcher Ananda Marin says the program makes room for Native science alongside Western science.

MARIN01: “We’re always continually as human beings searching for some kinds of answers and for us in Chicago its about trying to figure out how we can create environments for our kids where they can be indigenous peoples because when they go to school everyday they’re one person in a building of 300-400 kids where they’re the only Indian kids.”

MBLACK12: There are signs the curriculum may be working. When surveyed as part of the study, kids said the programming is helping them in school. And many of the researchers involved with the program have gone on to pursue PhD’s and Masters degree, and jobs in urban forestry and other sciences. Ultimately, Medin says, it’s about the future.

MEDIN: “Who owns science? One of the, I think, best products of our research project has been our team going back to school. We’re faced with global climate change, we’re faced with health issues, policy issues, and if the research determining policy is done by people with a different set of values, a different way of thinking about the world, it’s not necessarily going to be in the best interest of native people. I think the idea is to get native people a place at the table, and if you look at historical records of sustainability, why would you bet on European Americans?”

MBLACK13: The team’s study is expected to conclude in August. For the Native News Health Alliance with Christina Cala, this is Mallory Black.


© Native Health News Alliance

The Native Health News Alliance (NHNA), a partnership of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), creates and promotes shared health news content for American Indian communities at no cost.


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