January 17, 2017

Math & Science: Native STEM students too few

Native Explorer participants on Ferron Mountain in south-central Utah last year. Photo by Amy SparksWhile progressing through higher education, Dr. Kent Smith realizes there are people missing from the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) areas.

“I noticed that there weren’t many peers as I was a student at the undergraduate level that were Native, and when I was in graduate school; same thing. There weren’t hardly any Native American graduate students,” Smith, Comanche, said. “I didn’t have a single mentor that was Native American.”

Smith who earned degrees in biology, chemistry and paleontology has since made it his goal to get more Native Americans interested in the STEM fields.  Smith is an associate professor of anatomy and created the Native Explorers program at the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences (OSUCHS) in Tulsa, Okla.

“The primary goals are for me to be able to get Native Americans excited about science, in particular anatomy and paleontology,” he said.

Also sharing a passion for science and aware of the small number of Native students in the STEM fields is Cara Cowan Watts, Cherokee Nation Tribal Council deputy speaker. She is a lifetime member of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and previously served on its board.  She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering, Master of Science degree in telecommunications management, and is a Ph.D. candidate in biosystems engineering.

Cowan Watts said she hears horrible stories about Native American kids getting pigeon holed into lesser careers and not being challenged.

“With all the math and science ability, the last thing we need is for them to be something nobody needs,” she said. “We need doctors, we need nurses, we need engineers.”

Cowan Watts is especially concerned that Oklahoma High School graduation requirements are not college prep curriculum.

Information from an Oklahoma Scholars presentation states that, “Seven out of ten high school students graduate without completing courses needed to succeed at work or college,” and “70 percent of the fastest growing jobs require education beyond high school.”

Those are only a couple of examples why Cowan Watts is actively involved with getting students interested in the STEM disciplines. The Cowan Watts family also created an Excellence in Engineering award given to students from the fifth through eighth grade and ninth through 12th grade for projects that show the Best Use of Engineering.

“If we don’t have this skill set, how are we going to protect our natural resources?” Cowan Watts said.

The students who participate in the Native Explorers program visit and study natural resources first hand. They are also introduced to osteopathic medicine.

Shannean Fields, an OSU animal science pre-vet freshman, spent last summer as a Native Explorer.  She and seven other students hiked approximately ten thousand feet above sea level in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in south central Utah.

“It was a lot of fun. It’s a very hands-on experience. You get to learn about archeology, paleontology … and you get to go out there and experience what it’s like to do a dig yourself,” Fields said. “I just thought it was very enlightening.”

Fields, Muscogee Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Pawnee, was selected for the OSUCHS Native Explorers program and hiking into a different altitude increased her interest in science and amplified her summer job opportunities.

“Dr. Smith is really great and all the people he takes with him were really wonderful people and they’re all in the science field so coming from the science field it really helps to get involved and know people that are in the science field,” she said. “I already got a couple of summer jobs … I have options because of that.”

Native Explorers spend three days in the lab at OSUCHS learning about vertebrate paleontology and wilderness survival then embark on a paleontological dig. While in Utah last year, students learned about the area’s natural resources from a member of the U.S. Forestry Service.

Smith said one of the students found an early mammal new to science and the information will be published soon.

Athena Padgett, Austin College pre-med sophomore, was a Native Explorer last year and will return this year as a mentor. She said it was nice to learn something outside of the realm of chemistry, biology and anatomy and to gain knowledge about other genres of science like fossils and medicine.

“It was really an eye-opening experience. I had never camped in the mountains, so that was kind of different. I really enjoyed it. I just loved it … it definitely challenges you mentally and physically,” Padgett, Muscogee Creek, said.

The Native Explorers program is made possible by attorney Reggie Whitten, who also helped establish the Whitten-Newman Foundation. In addition he made a monetary donation to the University of Oklahoma’s Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, which helped create ExplorOlogy, a science program for Oklahoma pre-K through 12th graders.

“If it wasn’t for him I’d still be thinking and dreaming about it. But because of him, it’s a reality,” Smith said of the Native Explorers program and the Foundation.

“This is only for Native Americans. It’s not a minority program because there are a lot of minority programs out there but very few that are strictly for Natives. That’s what I wanted to concentrate on,” Smith said.  “Ultimately, my program introduces students, tries to encourage them to think about the sciences as careers and actually be able to have professionals in different careers introduced to students and say here’s some opportunities. So it’s kind of a win-win for everybody.”

Padgett said she applied for the Native Explorers program because she likes the sciences and recognizes the experience is not an everyday opportunity, plus she earned college credit.

“It’s a really good experience so take full advantage of it,” she said.

Information on other STEM programs can be found through the Oklahoma Scholars program at http://www.tulsaschools.org/sp/scholar.shtm, and the Oklahoma State Regents Resources that hold STEM summer camps at http://www.okcollegestart.org/Plan_for_College/_default.aspx.

Cowan Watts said the Cherokee Nation has a STEM summer camp and holds a National Science and Engineering Fair. This year winners from the tribe’s fair were given a chance to proceed to the International Sustainable World (Energy, Engineering, and Environment) Project (I-SWEEP) fair.

“We have been changing lives with these programs,” Cowan Watts said.

She said the Sax and Fox Nation will soon have an inaugural science and engineering fair as well. Outside of Oklahoma, Cowan Watts encourages students to enter the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) and the National American Indian Science & Engineering Fair (NAISEF).

This year the Native Explorers program will take students on a trip March 18 to the Oklahoma panhandle. A few participants will then be selected to go on a paleontological dig this summer in the Mojave Desert. All Native Explorer excursions weave in Native traditions and culture.

For anyone else still needing some inspiration Cowan Watts recommends the book The Algebra Project. She also helps disseminate information on current education and career opportunities via the OPC AISES Listserv. Anyone who wishes to be added to the e-mails can contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

She said Native American people should be celebrating successes that drive their communities, and should be running their own casinos instead of having to hire non-Native Americans. She said maybe if Native American kids are motivated to study math or science this could happen.

“We can’t continue to do things the way we do … there’s a lot of success, but every Indian person should be successful,” Cowan Watts said.

She said her generation is going a step further and is able to help students with opportunities in the STEM fields, and having an education and career in the STEM industry can forever break the face of poverty in families.

“Economic development is at the individual level,” Cowan Watts said.

For more information about the Cherokee Nation National Science and Engineering Fair visit http://www.cherokee.org/Services/442/Page/default.aspx, the Native Explorers program visit http://www.healthsciences.okstate.edu/college/biomedical/anatomy/smith.cfm, and the ExplorOlogy program visit http://explorology.snomnh.ou.edu/.