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Helping Tribal College Students Excel in STEM

It’s shaping up to be a good year for students in Indian Country.

For the first time in school history, students at Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College in Mount Pleasant, Michigan can register to take physics thanks to an upgraded laboratory. And at Leech Lake Tribal College in Cass Lake, Minnesota, students were able to take trigonometry for the first time last year.  Funded and supported by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA ), both schools made  improvements to bolster their students’ learning in the areas of science and mathematics.

NIFA’s Tribal Colleges Education Equity Grant is a noncompetitive program that enhances educational opportunities for American Indians in the food and agricultural sciences.  These grants strengthen formal educational opportunities at the associate, baccalaureate, or graduate level at 1994 land-grant institutions, also known as tribal colleges.

The new laboratory upgrade at Saginaw Chippewa means the school can offer advanced science classes – such as physics – without having to depend upon other institutions.  “In previous years, the college had to borrow a laboratory facility from Mid-Michigan Community College or Central Michigan University.  While these schools were glad to help, they could offer the laboratory only a when their students didn’t need it,” said plant pathologist Cheryl Calhoun, Saginaw Chippewa’s Equity Project director. “That meant inconvenient lab times for Saginaw Chippewa students. Since many of the Saginaw Chippewa students are working parents, the awkward timing resulted in many students not experiencing laboratory work at all.”

Students are also thriving at Leech Lake Tribal College, where the new math classes are helping students get their associate degree and then pursue a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution.

“This year, Leech Lake Tribal College had two graduates and two transfer students continue their education at a 4-year institution,” said Kelly Nipp, math instructor. “Their successful transition is evidence that our science and math programs are producing quality students who can continue their education at any college or university.”

For both schools, the benefits they’re seeing from these grants are just the tip of the iceberg.  Because the Tribal College Education Equity Grants also support scholarships, Saginaw Chippewa’s next goal is to expand its biology curriculum.  And Leech Lake plans to expand the science curriculum to include forestry and to expand the number of science internships available to their students.

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people’s daily lives and the nation’s future.   The 1994 land-grants —known as Tribal Colleges and Universities—will continue to give American Indian youth equal access to the sciences. The results are seen each year when Tribal College Faculty showcase their students’ research at the First Americans Land-Grant Consortium, their annual conference which will be held this year on October 27-30 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For more information about NIFA grants that support Tribal Colleges and Universities, please click here.

Students at the Saginaw-Chippewa Tribal College Native American Medicine and Plants lab learn how to properly mount pressed plant specimens.

Students at the Saginaw-Chippewa Tribal College Native American Medicine and Plants lab learn how to properly mount pressed plant specimens.

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