Guest Blog Post by Erin O’Keefe, Events & Outreach Coordinator with Flagstaff's Open Space Program through the STEM Education VISTA Project
The Indigenous Youth STEM Academy Completes its Pilot Year
This past summer, the City of Flagstaff Open Space Program implemented a pilot year of the Indigenous Youth STEM Academy (IYSA) at Picture Canyon Natural and Cultural Preserve. As Native Americans are one of the most underrepresented groups within STEM careers and among STEM degree-holders, I recognized a need for focused programming with Indigenous youth on these topics. As such, the goal of this program is to provide Indigenous youth in Flagstaff and the surrounding communities with an opportunity to learn about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in connection to culture, community, and stewardship while providing resources for pursuing higher education and professional careers in STEM fields.
Programming took place at Picture Canyon Natural and Cultural Preserve as it provides a unique opportunity for learning about Northern Sinagua petroglyphs and habitation sites, has an outdoor classroom area, interpretive signs throughout the Preserve, and represents a place of cultural importance for many surrounding tribal communities. The Academy consists of daylong sessions with various Indigenous youth groups. The key components of each session include an interpretive tour of the Preserve, a panel discussion with local STEM professionals and students, followed by an interactive learning project.
This year, we programmed with three different groups: the National Indian Youth Leadership Project (Gallup, New Mexico), Native Americans for Community Action (Flagstaff, Arizona), and Kinlani Bordertown Dormitory (Flagstaff, Arizona). Youth participants ranged from middle school to high school age, and represented tribes including Navajo, Zuni, Acoma Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo, Hopi, and Apache. The learning projects included rock art documentation and plant identification. Our panelists represented STEM fields from organizations including the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Natural Channel Design, Friends of the Rio de Flag, Museum of Northern Arizona, and Departments from Northern Arizona University including Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, Communication, Forestry, and Applied Indigenous Studies. Panelists discussed their experiences in STEM, why they are passionate about their field and their advice for young people pursuing education and careers in those areas.
In order to gauge response to the programming as well as any changes in interest to pursue STEM in college or careers, our youth participants filled out pre- and post- survey questionnaires. The surveys included questions such as, “How interested are you in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) as a potential career?”, “How interested are you in going to college?”, and “How important do you feel it is for Native Americans to work in STEM fields?” One participant expressed, “It is extremely important for Native Americans to work in STEM careers. I feel Native Americans are extremely overlooked as we are seen to not be well-educated.” Another participant stated, “One of the biggest barriers [to Native Americans pursuing careers in STEM] is poor education in our home towns.”
Overall, we identified increased interest in pursuing college as well as learning more about various STEM areas and topics. There was a large number of positive responses to the programming activities, and many of our participants expressed that they found great value in the panel discussions specifically.
As this is the first year of the Indigenous Youth STEM Academy, we plan to incorporate lessons learned into year two of programming in 2018. We plan to focus on enhanced collaboration with a specific youth group in order to provide continuous and more focused programming to build upon each session rather than providing only one-time sessions with various youth groups. We will also be transitioning our program schedule from summer sessions to sessions taking place during the school year to be able to engage youth more consistently throughout the year.
It is extremely exciting and rewarding to have these types of experiences where we are learning alongside Indigenous youth and witnessing their strength, intelligence, leadership and potential. We greatly look forward to continuing these efforts into the next year and the future.