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Grant program seeks to help tribal students learn STEM in new, engaging ways

Don Warne is the new director of the Indians into Medicine program at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS -- Leaders at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences hope a new grant aimed at helping teachers in tribal nations create engaging lessons in science, technology, engineering and math will spark interest in the field of neuroscience for American Indian students.

The multi-year, $322,260 grant will bring a group of high school instructors to the medical school this summer to work with the school’s existing STEM instructors to identify where improvements can be made in their respective curriculums.

“Quite often in our impoverished communities we don’t have the resources that teachers have in cities,” said Don Warne, director of the school’s Indians into Medicine program. INMED is a comprehensive program designed to assist American Indian students who aspire to be health professionals and to meet the needs of the country’s tribal communities.

Sarah Sletten, associate professor of biomedical sciences and one of the grantees, said teachers in middle school or high school often do not have a vast laboratory experience. A goal of the grant program is to show students that science is much more than textbooks and memorizing definitions.

“We really wanted to provide an experience for some of these teachers who may not have had a real laboratory experience to get hands-on experience on how science is actually done, so they can translate that into engaging, real-world lessons,” she said.

Sletten said they hope the lessons will help students become more interested in the STEM field, specifically neuroscience. Doctors and scientists who specialize in neurology study conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and cerebral palsy. The field involves all areas of STEM learning.

About INMED

The INMED program has graduated 237 American Indian physicians, making it the “most successful indigenous medical program in world history,” Warne said. The students are from all around the country.

However, Warne said every population except the American Indian population has seen an increase in the number of people attending medical school.

“It’s pathetic, so that’s why we need to build our capacities at an even greater degree,” he said.

The INMED program also has a summer program to bring 48 American Indian middle school and high school students from across the country to spend six weeks at UND for courses in chemistry, biology, physics, math and communication.

Warne, who also is associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the medical school, said the school needs more students in INMED, but that’s a challenge because fewer American Indians are going into the field.

“That’s through no fault of their own, though,” Warne said. “They go to schools that are often underfunded and don’t have the resources that other students have. Therefore, they’re less competitive, not because of their skillsets or abilities or potential, but because of poverty.”

Warne said there are endless examples of indigenous populations using science, technology, engineering and math; for instance, he said the Mayans used STEM-centric ideas to create vast and thriving cities in Mexico at a more advanced level than most of Europe.

“Our kids don’t know this. Actually most people don’t know this,” he said. “It’s just incredible to me the lack of awareness of indigenous issues.”

Even weaponry can be linked to STEM. Warne said he hunts a buffalo every year so his family has meat for the year. Though he uses a high-powered rifle to do the hunting, Warne said his ancestors “literally used sticks and stones.”

“They knew how to fashion weapons powerful enough to kill a buffalo,” he said. “That’s amazing to me that they were able to do that. Look at the science, the technology and engineering behind that.”

By incorporating these examples, Warne said he hopes more American Indian students become interested in STEM careers.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of examples of remarkable STEM that is indigenous,” he said. “So that’s got to be a part of the framework when we teach STEM. It shouldn’t be from a non-indigenous perspective because it doesn’t have to be. But that’s how it’s always been done.”