Special Report

Catching Up Native American Students in Science

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 23, 2021 | Corrected: November 29, 2021 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article misstated the most recent NAEP science on third reference; it was in 2019.

In 2019, busloads of students from schools in Arapahoe, Wyo., came out to see a buffalo herd return to the Wind River Reservation for the first time in more than 100 years. For middle school science teacher Iva Moss-Redman, the field trip provided fodder for weeks of lessons about the ecology and history of the animals in the community, as well as detailed analysis of current research on the feasibility of keeping the herd.

When an even bigger herd was released this fall, no students got to see them.

The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho “each got 25 buffalo to release, but … the Delta variant was running through here, so nobody got to go anywhere,” said Moss-Redman, a Northern Arapaho tribal member and now an education researcher and teacher-trainer at the University of Idaho. The pandemic has changed science instruction in her community “a lot,” she said, ending the regular field trips and forcing teachers to scramble for remote learning activities that wouldn’t rely on students’ uncertain internet access.

Native American students overall moved back to in-person classes faster than students of most other racial and ethnic groups during the pandemic, but ongoing outbreaks, limited transportation, and other problems still have limited efforts to increase the cultural relevance of science instruction for Native American students—at a time when communities dearly need to increase Native Americans’ presence in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. It’s a setback many of these communities can little afford.

The number of people who reported being Native American or Alaskan Native jumped from 5.2 million in the 2010 Census to 9.7 million in the 2020 count, making up nearly 3 percent of the U.S. population. That includes those who consider themselves as belonging to one of the 574 federally recognized tribes, either alone or in combination with another ethnicity. Nearly 30 percent of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are children, compared with 22 percent of the U.S. population overall who are younger than 18.

While other groups traditionally underrepresented in science, such as Black and Hispanic students, have gained ground in the subject over the last decade, Native American students struggle:

  • On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for instance, Native American students were the only ethnic group to show no progress from 2009 to 2019 in science at grades 4, 8, or 12, and 8th graders likewise flatlined on the technology and engineering assessments from 2014 to 2018.
  • According to the College Board, which oversees the Advanced Placement program, the number of Native American students participating in those courses has declined in comparison with other student groups. The Education Trust has previously found Native American students more than 10 percentage points less likely than those of any other racial group to attend a high school that offers any AP classes at all, with 1 in 4 having no access to them.
  • And, as of 2019, only 29 percent of Native American 12th graders had completed the full complement of biology, chemistry, and physics courses—the basic groundwork for science study in college—compared with 41 percent of 12th graders overall.

Montoya Whiteman, the marketing and outreach director for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, a nonprofit that advocates to increase the pipeline of Native Americans in science and engineering fields, said Native American students often attend schools that are under resourced for STEM instruction and with science teachers who have not been trained to work with Native American students.

“I think that the digital divide has always kind of been there for Indian country and Indian communities; the pandemic just really kind of exacerbated that situation,” she said. “A lot of these schools don’t have the budget for—and there’s maybe not even awareness of—the types of teaching tools out there that they can use [for science].”

In fact, NAEP data also show Native American students are less likely than other students to experience inquiry-based instruction in science class, which research suggests is associated with better understanding of scientific process and concepts. On the most recent assessments, conducted in 2019, 46 percent of Native American 8th graders could not perform at the “basic” level in science, and a third did not meet basic achievement in technology and engineering on that 2018 assessment. To put this into context, it means that Native American test-takers struggled to describe a water cycle or a model of the solar system, to lay out a scientific experiment or observation, or to evaluate sources of data in different media.

Stanford University research has shown they also tend to have fewer educational opportunities in math and reading. For example, Native American students are nearly three times less likely to participate in Algebra 1 by 8th grade than their white peers.

Even in Wyoming, which requires algebra by 8th grade, Moss-Redman said teachers often end up focusing more on remedial multiplication and division. “A lot of our students are interested in STEM careers, but … they’re not all proficient in mathematics. And when they get into those upper-level mathematics and science classes, that stops a lot of them, and they change their direction,” she said.

Outside of tribal schools, Native American students tend to be minorities within the public schools they attend, even in schools where there are a majority of students of color. While 62 percent of Native American students attend a school with a majority of students of color, nearly the same share (63 percent) attend a school where Native Americans make up less than a quarter of the students.

That can exacerbate Native American students’ anxiety about stereotypes and turn them off science even when they have access to classes and materials, according to Ashish Amresh, a research scientist at Arizona State University, who works with high schools designing science and coding games for Native American students. Both his coding program and the science and engineering society’s national science fair for Native American students aim to encourage students to think of themselves as scientists.

“The problem is that it’s not the complexity of the computer science field,” Amresh said. “It just feels for Native Americans, like for most minorities who are underrepresented [in STEM], like they won’t belong there or they won’t be included.”

Native American students “would go through computer science in high school, maybe they’ll go to computing in a community college ... but then they will feel like that’s not a career for them—and it’s not because they didn’t have the aptitude or the skills for it, but they feel like they may not be a good fit based on their demographic or their perception of the field,” Amresh continued. “There’s a lot of effort to change that, but ... when it comes to Native American audiences, there’s work to do on how do you build a culturally relevant curriculum.”

Incorporating more cross-subject projects and involving students’ families and communities can spur students’ engagement in science. For example, Whiteman said the American Indian Science and Engineering Society is working with Cheyenne community members in North Dakota to develop school and summer programs that integrate robotics and ecology, and University of Idaho student-teachers are developing math and engineering lessons that incorporate local Nez Perce tribal histories and lore around economies and teepee construction.

“Partnerships with other teachers help the Indigenous learner more because it’s kind of in line with how the community teaches their children,” Moss-Redman said. “You know, Western education silos its subjects; when I partnered [with other teachers], we didn’t. We were all one big group learning about one topic, but we saw how math, science, English, social studies, everything fell into place by learning about these buffalo.”

Native American educators make up 1 percent of elementary teachers and 2 percent of secondary teachers, based on federal estimates, but they make up only 0.5 percent of science teachers, according to labor analysts. That’s why experts say teachers need significantly more training in how to incorporate culturally relevant lessons for their students—especially when they are not themselves members of a tribal community or Native Americans make up a small portion of their students.

For example, Phoenix-area STEM teachers who participated in Amresh’s technology boot camp are learning to adapt their computer science courses, incorporating less-linear paths to explore coding and tying instruction to community issues. “Unfortunately, computer science has developed with a Western way of instruction, and typically when that happens, it really leaves people behind,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Catching Up Native American Students in Science


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