Indigenous Knowledge and Informal STEM Learning

August 24th, 2015

The following resources from the repository explore some of the ways in which informal STEM education bridges Indigenous knowledge and Western science.

Culturally Responsive STEM Education

STEM concepts and practices are embedded in the daily lives of Native communities. The Native Science Field Centers project, based out of the nonprofit Hopa Mountain, Inc., acknowledges and incorporates Native ways of knowing when designing environmental monitoring programs for youth and adults. In the article Effective practices for creating transformative science education programs grounded in Native ways of knowing, project partners share examples and strategies of collaborating with Native communities to create informal STEM education programs, and they communicate how project findings may extended to formal education.

Collaborating with Integrity

In the document Cosmic Serpent: Collaboration with Integrity – Bridging Native Ways of Knowing and Western Science in Museum Settings, authors Nancy Maryboy, David Begay, and Laura Peticolas share some of their insights from the Cosmic Serpent project on how to successfully collaborate across cultures:

  • Build authentic relationships. Take time to get to know members of Native groups and become a part of the community.
  • Gain awareness of worldviews. Develop an understanding of the differences between Indigenous and Western worldviews.
  • Be open-minded. Communication across cultures requires partners to be flexible and open-minded in order to create a product that conveys both Native and Western scientific perspectives.
  • Engage in co-creation. Work with members of Indigenous communities to co-create exhibits and programs. There should be a constant dialogue that involves all voices throughout the entirety of the process.

These four principles that underline respect for others’ worldviews and deep relationship-building can be used to build partnerships, and broaden inclusion, with other underrepresented groups and communities.

Relationship to Place

The concept of relationship to place is central to many Native cultures. How can this relationship strengthen STEM teaching and learning? Principal investigators Karen Washinawatok, Megan Bang, and Douglas Medin explored the idea of place when developing citizen science programs with Native communities (Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin) in both rural and urban environments in the project Rebuilding Relationships to Place. The project developed design principles which can be further explored in the article Repatriating Indigenous Technologies in an Urban Indian Community. The authors stress the importance of the ways in which culture mediates relationships with, conceptions of, and innovations in technology and technologically related disciplines, and recognizing how these relationships will inform the subsequent implications for learning environments.

Cross-Continental Collaboration

Informal Science Learning in Ecological Contexts: Science Learning and Native Language Use seeks to build cross-cultural collaboration among Indigenous communities in the intermountain western United States (the Yellowstone region broadly construed), and the Altai-Sayan ecoregion of southern Russia and northern Mongolia. Originally a collaboration between Montana State University and Gorno-Altaisk State University (GASU, Altai Republic, Russian Federation), the project engages an international perspective on informal STEM education with Indigenous populations, whose ancient territories and practices have been compromised by the political boundaries and governance of modern nation states. Working within a network of established relationships provided by BioRegions, International, the project expanded its work into the Darhad Valley of northern Mongolia in the summer of 2016, engaging Indigenous American (tribal and mainstream) college students with semi-nomadic Mongolian herder communities. Using Indigenous Research Methodologies and a Holistic Management framework, students researched questions of Indigenous ecological knowledge in their home reservation communities, and then conducted similar research projects with Indigenous knowledge holders in Mongolia. Preliminary results urge fine-grained analyses of Indigenous environmental terms (including place names) to recognize, preserve and pass place-based knowledge along to current and future generations. In turbulent contexts where rapid cultural and environmental change are the norm (as is true of many Indigenous communities around the world), informal science includes traditional forms of learning-by-watching, -listening, and -doing (praxis), but also must engage with tools like geographic information systems (GIS), film, websites, and other documentary ways of sharing and inscribing Indigenous knowledge in local decision-making systems.

Recently Funded Projects

The National Science Foundation has recently funded several projects that are currently fostering collaborations between informal STEM education and Native communities. The project Walking in Two Worlds: Engaging the Community and Future Native American Scientists in Environmental Science and Managing Natural Resources on Tribal Lands will use a participatory process to engage communities around resource management and environmental issues. In The Hidden World of Permafrost, contributors from the University of Alaska and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry will conduct oral history research, and develop programming and exhibits in native Alaskan communities while developing a nationwide outreach effort around the topic of permafrost. The project Using Technology to Research After Class will explore how the combination of technology and facilitated visits affects engagement, knowledge, skills, and attitudes toward STEM for rural and Native American elementary-age youth in after school programs. In Earth Partnership: Indigenous Arts and Sciences, project leaders at the University of Wisconsin, Madison will develop a model to bring Indigenous communities and formal and informal educators together in the development of youth-oriented ecological restoration programs.

Photo: Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian CC BY-NC 2.0