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Successful Practices: Lighting STEM Pathways for Native Americans

Posted on December 28, 2016
Native American undergraduates
Native American undergraduates participate in national AISES conference, as part of a networking strategy to encourage advancement in STEM fields. Photo credit: AISES

Native Americans comprise a small percentage of the U.S. population. Despite that reality, expanding the engagement of Native Americans in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) pursuits is critical for addressing many of the scientific challenges facing the nation. That belief undergirds a lifelong commitment to STEM mentoring of Native Americans by Dr. Robert Megginson (PAESMEM 1997), an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mathematics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “There are issues coming up, such as protecting the Earth and climate change, which impact historical and cultural beliefs for Native Americans. We have to be at the table when these decisions are made.”

But, attracting and retaining Native Americans in STEM programs at colleges and universities has unique challenges. “Native students often feel isolated and estranged at college. This is made more difficult by being away from family, because it’s part of tradition to help take care of their family member,” explains Dr. Margaret Werner-Washburne (2003 PAESMEM), a geneticist and Regents’ Professor of Biology at the University of New Mexico (UNM). “We work to help students form a community in an academic environment where they and their traditions are respected, and they learn how to navigate the academic system while holding on to who they are.”

Both Megginson and Werner-Washburne direct programs that encourage Native Americans to stay and excel on the STEM pathway, from undergraduate study to post-doctoral research and teaching.


Mentoring: From Undergrads to Faculty

Throughout his mentoring career, Megginson has worked with underrepresented groups at all educational stages, encouraging them to pursue careers in math, science and engineering. A member of the NSF Committee for Equal Opportunity in Science and Engineering (CEOSE), Megginson serves as co-principal investigator for Lighting the Pathway to Faculty Careers for Natives in STEM. The program, created by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) (PAESMEM Organizational 1997), is funded by the National Science Foundation to support mentorship of American Indian and Alaska Native students and to encourage them to persist in pursuing advanced STEM degrees, leading to Ph.D.s, and, ultimately, faculty appointments.

Now in its third year of NSF funding, the program accepts 30 students annually, many of them undergraduates. Megginson says the program leverages experienced mentors nationwide who use successful mentoring models to assist Native Americans in reaching their goals. To address the geographic spread of Native Americans in the program, Megginson says faculty mentors who sign up to mentor Native American STEM students often schedule phone or other virtual meetings at least once a month.

The program’s near-peer mentoring component is achieved during an annual conference that is held by AISES. During the pre-conference activities last November, Megginson says the mentees in the program met in person, shared experiences and developed their own support network. Students also received scholarships to attend the conference. Program participants also engage in summer research projects. “As undergraduates, we want them to get excited about research, so we require them to do that,” Megginson says.

He also emphasizes that faculty mentors in the program have the discretion to do what is needed within formal mentoring parameters. “The folks who do this are experienced mentors, and they have their own methodology for keeping the students engaged along the pathway. We respect their expertise.”

Lighting the Pathways is closely monitoring the progress of the 60 students who have been selected to date for their program. “We will have ultimately succeeded if substantial numbers of participants become STEM faculty, although that success will be difficult to measure during the lifetime of the proposal,” Megginson says.


Changing the Paradigm

During Werner-Washburne’s mentoring career, she observed that many Native American students at UNM dropped out of STEM studies and college by sophomore year. She could relate. After getting a “C” on a chemistry exam during her freshman year and soon after the death of her father, she was encouraged to leave school by her chemistry professor. Instead, Werner-Washburne finished with a B.A. in English. During the next five years, she lived in Mexico, South America, Alaska, Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand and Minnesota, where she became friends with people from many different indigenous groups. During those years, she also developed an interest in botany and ultimately pursued her career as a professor of biology, with a specialty in microbial genomics.

Given her experience, Werner-Washburne became committed to assisting students of many backgrounds, but especially Native Americans at UNM, who contribute unique perspectives, but may feel disconnected and overwhelmed by administrative requirements in an academic environment.

To help Native American students understand how they can exist and succeed in college, Werner-Washburne developed a holistic approach. She created a one-credit course for biology and engineering majors that taps into the spiritual and environmental connections that are part of her students’ culture. “We work on ’knowing your heart,’ so that students understand how their values fit into the path forward and they become self-motivated. They, like all of us, need to be doing something that is valuable, and that means family, traditions, caring for the earth. We just have to work to get them past their own fear of math and science.”

After the course, Werner-Washburne facilitates near-peer mentoring—mentoring by more senior STEM students who also help to counsel and guide undergraduate students in STEM academic requirements. Werner-Washburne emphasizes that she requires the advanced student mentors to undergo the same spiritual and environmental connections training as undergraduates or mentees receive in the one-credit course.

If students are interested in research careers, Werner-Washburne encourages students from the one-credit class to become part of another program she manages—Initiative for Maximizing Student Development, funded by the National Institutes of Health. Since 2004, more than 25 undergraduate and graduate students per year have enrolled in the program, which has led to more than 53 Ph.D.s from diverse backgrounds choosing to pursue STEM careers.

Werner-Washburne’s work has positively impacted New Mexico, a state NSF has designated to increase STEM research capacity and capability through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). Her mentoring efforts also give her insight into sustaining diversity in STEM, a topic Werner-Washburne explored as part of a video series, iBiology, funded by the National Research and Mentoring Network.

Megginson and Werner-Washburne are mentoring Native American STEM students in ways that are both long-lasting and innovative. By helping to expand the numbers of Native Americans who are proficient and accomplished in STEM, they are buttressing the nation’s STEM workforce with those who bring new perspectives.



PAESMEM organizations and individual alumni have played a major role in helping to forge the pathways for Native Americans in STEM. They include:

The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) (PAESMEM Organizational 1997)

AISES was created to mentor and support Native American students through its 147 student chapters. The chapters focus on developing leadership skills and sharing information that better prepare Native Americans students for science and engineering fields. In addition, AISES provides scholarships to enable students to continue their education and attend annual AISES conferences. The conferences offer attendees the opportunity to connect with each other and with faculty, who are role models. AISES also conducts precollege activities, such as science fairs and precollege math and science camps. Through these activities, AISES creates an environment that nurtures and encourages precollege and college students to pursue the sciences. AISES was founded in 1979.

Dr. Marigold Linton, Director, American Indian Outreach, University of Kansas (PAESMEM 2009)

Dr. Marigold Linton currently is Director of American Indian Outreach at the University of Kansas and a former President of The Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) (PAESMEM Organizational 2004). Born and raised on the Morongo reservation in Southern California, Linton attended the University of California, Riverside and became the first reservation Native American in California to attend university. She earned a Ph.D. in psychology at UCLA and went on to a successful career in research and teaching at San Diego State University, the University of Utah and Arizona State University. Linton has mentored underrepresented minority students, particularly Native Americans at multiple points along the STEM pathway. Linton also mentors emerging scientists through her leadership in SACNAS. She worked to develop networking and mentoring strategies that encourage nationally recognized scientists within SACNAS to mentor thousands of students at all levels of training from undergraduates through early faculty years.

Indian Natural Resource, Science and Engineering Program (INRSEP) at Humboldt State University (PAESMEM 2000)

Since its establishment in 1974, the Indian Natural Resource, Science and Engineering Program (INRSEP) at Humboldt State University has trained about 40 percent of the nation's natural resource professionals of Native American descent. The underlying philosophy at INRSEP is to maintain a strong academic program which is intrinsically linked to Native American cultural perspectives. Services provided include academic advising and advocacy, personal and cultural counseling, tutorials, cooperative education and internships. Students are also provided guidance in balancing Western science with traditional holistic beliefs.

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