U-Idaho and Tribes Awarded $1.1 Million NSF Grant

Monday, April 30 2012

By Donna Emert

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

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

The three-year project aims 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 by and will be 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 will provide STEM-rich afterschool and summer programs for students in grades 4-6 on the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane reservations. As they implement the hands-on projects based in their communities, students will create a “virtual watershed,” a web-based site to include an interactive map with geospatial locations of social, cultural and scientific significance.

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

Student activities will 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 was unique for its focus on tribal students and is the first ITEST project to be funded in Idaho.
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The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to than 70 additional research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals, and competes in the Western Athletic Conference. Learn more: www.uidaho.edu.