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UI Earns Grant to Establish STEM Program for Nez Perce Students

March 24, 2016

University of Idaho researchers are teaming up with the Nez Perce Tribe to inspire the tribe’s next generation of scientists.

UI received a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to start a program designed to help Nez Perce high school students form an identity as scientists while learning to use cutting-edge remote sensing technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles.

Thirty students at Lapwai High School will attend a camp in summer 2017 at UI’s McCall Outdoor Science School, or MOSS. In the year following, a Lapwai teacher will lead a class where students further develop their science skills, study local problems that could be addressed with remote-sensing technology and work in collaboration with the tribe’s natural resources departments.

Meanwhile, the research team will work collaboratively  with the community to develop research and evaluation questions to understand how using advanced technologies and addressing meaningful problems help the students not only learn principals of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but also form a “STEM identity” connected to their cultural identity.

“We’re looking at working with students on how they have this really rich cultural tradition of being involved in STEM, and that they can use these skills and think of the kind of careers they can pursue, ultimately feeding back into jobs in their own community,” said Karla Eitel, the project’s lead researcher, an associate research professor in the UI College of Natural Resources and director of education at MOSS.

The Nez Perce Tribe faces an aging workforce, said Kay Seven, the tribe’s director of adult education and UI’s partner on the project.

“We need to encourage tribal members, Indian individuals, to go to school and pursue these majors that are needed for our departments,” Seven said. “Our past chairman, Silas Whitman, would often speak of the tribe’s need for chemists, hydrogeologists, fire ecologists and forest and fisheries biologists.” 

The program’s first phase begins this spring, as researchers work with the tribe to assess their needs. Raymond Dixon, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the UI College of Education, will study the skills and knowledge required for entry-level tribal natural resources jobs, then help the researchers design a curriculum for the camp and follow-up classroom experiences.

Eitel said the program comes at an exciting time when UI is expanding collaborations with the Nez Perce and other tribes, such as the National Tribal Climate Camp in June 2016 and a certificate program in the College of Natural Resources designed specifically to support workforce development.

“The more diverse perspectives we have when it comes to problem solving, the better off we all are,” Eitel said. “I think the university will benefit from that diversity and have a better understanding of how to educate in a way that resonates, that’s connected to the cultural strengths of the students. It’ll make us all stronger and better educators.”

Yolanda Bisbee, UI executive director of tribal relations, said it’s exciting to see UI’s collaborations with the Nez Perce tribe grow.

“Programs such as this help in the student education/career pipeline by engaging our Native youth to begin early planning about career possibilities,” Bisbee said. “More importantly, programs such as this are acknowledging and incorporating traditional knowledge, as it plays a major role in our Native youths’ learning and has been missing historically in education.”

Tara Roberts
Science and Research Writer, University Communications

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 12,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky Conference. Learn more at