MISSOULA – The University of Montana has been awarded a two-year $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to launch a pilot project to enhance American Indian participation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Aaron Thomas is an associate professor of chemistry and director of UM’s Native American Research Laboratory. He said the funding will establish the American Indian Traditional Science Experience on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The AITSE project will generate an innovative approach that uses a diverse set of partners – including after-school, hands-on learning opportunities and long-term programming – to create a transformative learning experience for Native students.

“Native American and Alaska Native students are the least represented minority population in the STEM disciplines,” Thomas said. “Native people offer a unique perspective in these fields that will help bring innovative ideas in a diversified workforce. Our focus is to work with middle school students to help create pathways into STEM that will continue through high school and then on to higher education.”
He said AITSE will prepare students academically, culturally and socially for higher education before they come to campus. The project also will work to establish more cultural understanding for those in education to help create a more inclusive, welcoming environment for Native students.

The initial pilot is intended to expand to seven reservations across Montana. The project will:

1.  develop a network of cross-sector partners to collectively impact STEM education in Native populations.

2.  increase the competency and positively influence the attitude of Native students in math and science, with a preliminary focus on middle school, through experiential and community-based learning that is culturally relevant.

3.  build community awareness and investment in STEM in Native communities and within Native leadership and governance.

The UM grant award is one of 27 presented nationally as part of the NSF INCLUDES program. (INCLUDES stands for Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Under-represented Discoverers in Engineering and Science.) The program is designed to create paths to STEM fields for underrepresented populations to expand the nation’s leadership and talent pools.

According to NSF, a growing body of scientific research suggests that complex problems are best addressed through collective impact or networked communities focused on finding solutions through common goals and shared resources.

“Broadening participation in STEM is necessary for the United States to retrain its position as the world’s preeminent source of scientific innovation,” said NSF Director France Córdova. “(NSF) has a long history of working to address difficult challenges by creating the space for inventive solutions. NSF INCLUDES breaks new ground by providing a sustained commitment to collaborative change with the goal of bringing STEM opportunities to more people and communities across the country.”

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