STEM camp helps grow Native American students' curiosity

June 28, 2023, midnight ·

Student looks at information in front of a display at the Aerospace Museum.
Student at the STEM education camp looks at info-graphics in front of a display at the Aerospace Museum in Ashland, Nebraska. (Photo by Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media)

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A summer camp in Nebraska is trying to spark Native American students’ interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Twenty-seven middle school students from more than eight tribes in Nebraska and South Dakota toured the Aerospace Museum in Ashland, Nebraska, earlier this month.

Red Eagle Grinnell from Omaha Nation Public Schools in Macy, Nebraska, said he learned something new.

“(I learned) about all these planes in here,” Grinnell said. “When they were used, and how they were used.”

Grinnell will start eighth grade this fall. The science camp expands his curiosity about the universe, he said.

“You get to learn new things, learn about space.” Grinnell said. “(The camp) makes me want to go to school to learn about space, to be a scientist.”

After high school, Grinnell wants to study at the University of Oregon.

The program is run by the University of Nebraska Medical Center and funded by a National Institutes of Health grant. The science camp began in 2005. Program leaders have also added resources for partner schools to bolster its STEM education offerings.

One goal of the program is to grow the number of Indigenous scientists and STEM workers.

Emme Hollow is interested in working in STEM.

This year she’ll be in eighth grade at McLaughlin Public Schools in South Dakota. Since she started middle school, Hollow knew she wanted to be a nurse like her mom.

One thing she saw up close at the camp was a robot mannequin, but she had mixed feelings about it.

“Uh no, that was creepy. You can feel their pulses and everything. They can go into cardiac arrest,” Hollow said.

After high school, she wants to move to New York for college.

Indigenous people earn less than 1% of all STEM degrees in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics, despite making up almost 3% of the total population. The disproportion is caused by the lack of access to STEM education in many reservation communities according to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

Hollow’s superintendent and chaperone for the camp, Dr. George Shipley Jr., wanted to research Indigenous students’ interest in college. In 2019, Shipley Jr. wrote his dissertation about the summer camp’s impact on Indigenous middle schoolers.

“My dissertation showed that the willingness to be away from home shot up with these experiences,” Shipley Jr. said. “So they weren't afraid to go off to camp, go off to college.”

Organizers of the camp hope for better participation in the next few years, similar to pre-pandemic levels. At that time, about 40 students participated in the camp each year.