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NSF Grant 1.1 million

U-Idaho and Tribes Awarded $1.1 Million NSF Grant

Photo by Jerome Pollos| Coeur d' Alene Press
By Donna Emert

Professor Anne Kern teachingCOEUR D’ALENE, Idaho – A $1.1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant has brought Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education to underserved American Indian students in the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane tribes.

The NSF monies are funding the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST), Back to the Earth (BTTE) project.

The three-year project works to merge indigenous knowledge systems with Western science to provide a platform for STEM engagement for American Indian students.

Because the regional watershed connects the two tribal communities physically and culturally, watershed monitoring and health is a focal point of the program. BTTE incorporates interdisciplinary, place-based lessons on watershed, ecosystems and natural resource management. ITEST was established by the NSF in direct response to the growing demand for, and current shortage of, STEM professionals.

To meet that demand, ITEST supports research studies that address questions and seek solutions — including the development, creation and testing of implementation models. ITEST also seeks to ensure the breadth and depth of the future workforce.

“Ultimately, this program builds students’ capacity to participate in the STEM workforce,” said Anne Kern, professor of science education at University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene, and principle investigator for the grant.

“The Back to the Earth projects brings scientists, STEM educators, Tribal leaders and students together to explore serious environmental and cultural issues, seeking to encourage students to learn about their culture and environment. Students have much stronger ownership and interest when the issues they are addressing affect them, their families, their culture and the place where they live. The health of the region’s watershed has significant impacts in all of those categories, and more.”

The regional Back to the Earth program was conceived is being carried out in partnership between University of Idaho faculty in Curriculum and Instruction, University Extension, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Spokane Tribe. The program is funded through the summer of 2015.

The program provides STEM-rich afterschool and summer programs for students in grades fourth through two girl students looking through microscopesixth on the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane reservations. As they implement the hands-on projects based in their communities, students create a “virtual watershed,” a web-based site that includes an interactive map with geospatial locations of social, cultural and scientific significance. That website is

Students’ work and progress are documented via videos, podcasts, blogs, wikis and other texts. Student exposure to and use of these technologies not only promotes science and technology literacy, but also equips students to become savvy participants in STEM activities in classroom and in real-world contexts, Kern said.

Student activities include monitoring water quality and gathering the data, addressing engineering challenges, building the virtual watershed and documenting environmental impacts on sacred community places. The program also incorporates annual pow-wow celebrations, highlighting students’ work and knowledge.

The Back to the Earth project actively involves teachers of American Indian students and trains them to more effectively incorporate interdisciplinary STEM learning activities into the curriculum.

The regional BTTE project is one of only five the NSF selected to fund across the U.S. and on tribal lands. The University of Idaho proposal is unique for its focus on tribal students and is the first ITEST project to be funded in Idaho.