Through the Reach for the Sky program, students at White Earth learn engineering concepts and technology by studying bike design.
American Indian students reach for the sky: making math and science culturally r
Making math and science culturally relevant
By Stephan Carlson
From eNews, June 24, 2004
The relationship between the University and the Circle of Life School at White Earth began in 1998 when elders invited the University to collaborate in addressing critical issues on their reservation. Concern for their youth was the top priority. Knowing that education is a way out of poverty, the group collectively agreed to develop a math and science summer school. The summer school program, Reach for the Sky, was expanded into the school year. (Grants from NASA and Toyota USA Foundation have funded the program.) In the past three years, students in the program have seen their math proficiency scores catapult from 39 percent to 73 percent and their science scores increase from 52 percent to 65 percent (based on the standardized Terra Nova test). At the same time, proficiency scores in English remained constant. In addition, school retention and graduation rates have increased, and the Circle of Life School itself, once ranked as one of the lowest performing in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) system and slated for closure, has increased to 17th nationally. In a place where success is hard to come by, unemployment is more than 50 percent, and only 40 percent of adults have a high school diploma, these high school students are being challenged to think creatively and use their intelligence.
"Bringing the community members and elders along with the University faculty has enriched the Native perspective on science and math...," says Mitch Vogt, principal of Circle of Life School.Reservation elders along with University faculty and students from the U of M Extension Service (Center for 4-H Youth Development), College of Natural Resources, and the Institute of Technology are all involved in the program. They teach the students through a combination of traditional American Indian stories and hands-on activities-that modern science is part of their daily lives. The high school students learn there's geometry in building birch bark canoes as well as making moccasins and snowshoes; that chemistry is involved in producing maple syrup; and biology plays a part in the harvesting of deer. The students understand engineering concepts and technology by studying rocket science, bike design, vehicle assembly, and small engine repair. "I never saw myself as a teacher before," says Mike Bellanger, a White Earth community leader, "but through this program I have shared skills in welding and small engines that these students can use for a lifetime." "Bringing the community members and elders along with the University faculty has enriched the Native perspective on science and math and made it relevant to these students lives," says Mitch Vogt, principal of Circle of Life School. "If it hadn't been for the involvement of these adults, students would not have gained the much-valued perspective of how Indians dealt with math and science before textbooks." This connection with the University is helping elders on the White Earth Reservation leave a legacy of a better life for their children. Since the program's inception, high school graduation rates at the Circle of Life School have increased from 35 percent in 2002 to 58 percent in 2004. School attendance increased from 80 percent to 87 percent, and high school graduates are beginning to consider college as a real option, says Vogt. Vogt and science teacher Steve Furuseth have been recognized nationally for their achievements by the BIA's schools. In addition, the BIA has awarded the White Earth Reservation a new K-12 school that will be built over the next three years.
Stephan Carlson is a professor and extension educator with the University of Minnesota Extension Service's Center for 4-H Youth Development.
This article originally appeared in Consortium Connections, spring 2004.