Montana state and tribal colleges working on better science education

News reports tell us that U.S. students are falling behind the world in math and science studies.

I believe that most studies also show that American Indian students lag even further behind in these subjects. Consequently, the Salish-Kootenai Tribal College, Montana State University, and the University of Montana are working on a program of to train science teachers on or near reservations in Montana. The program is funded by a five-year, $4.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation. In addition to the original NSF grant, the program received $900,000 in funding from the NSF Math and Science Partnership.

“The Big Sky Science Partnership is doing great things,” said Elisabeth Swanson, director of the project at MSU. “It works with teachers to help them feel more comfortable teaching physical sciences. It also helps teachers connect traditional science knowledge with topics that are culturally relevant, and to use inquiry-based teaching methods.”

At MSU, the Big Sky Science Partnership began with 16 teachers in the summer of 2007. A second group of 17 students started in the summer of 2009.

So far, about one-third of the students in the program are Native Americans.

Dora Hugs is enrolled in the program. She teaches science at St. Charles Mission School in Pryor Montana and is a citizen of the Crow Tribe. She decided to invite Crow elders into her classroom to tell science-related stories because the classes offered through the Big Sky Science Partnership emphasize the importance of making science lessons culturally relevant. The approach was successful, she added, because “the students saw that (science) wasn’t just the teacher’s point of view.”

Devon Flamm is also enrolled in the program and teaches in Hardin. She also particularly appreciates the cultural aspect of the Big Sky Science Partnership and uses tribal stories. “One example is astronomy,” she said. “There are so many Crow and Northern Cheyenne stories about astronomy. It really helps to bring in those stories. They become part of the lesson, not a separate part.”

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