The idea, according to speakers at the AAAS Annual Meeting, is that the students learn more if they have a cultural context for their studies, but also that Native American culture and its integrated view of the world may have much to offer Western science.
"We're dealing with the notion that Western knowledge is the only coherent way of looking at the world," says Gigi Berardi, chair of environmental studies at Western Washington University's Huxley College of The Environment. "Both realms of knowledge and science are needed by tribal natural resources managers and environmental specialists, and we seek to provide the necessary knowledge of western science, within the context of tribal culture and knowledge."
The innovative educational initiative, known as the Tribal Environmental and Natural Resources Management (TENRM) program, is designed to give students experience and background so that they can either graduate as technical experts or transfer to a four-year university or college environmental studies program. Supported by the National Science Foundation, the five-year program created an alliance between the Northwest Indian College on the Lummi Indian Reservation near Bellingham, Washington, and Western Washington University, in order to address the lack of Native Americans with expertise in natural resources and fisheries. Nationwide, only 0.3 percent of the science and technology workforce are Native Americans, who comprise approximately one percent of the U.S. population.
In addition to incorporating elements of Western science and Native American perspectives, the program also has several other features that address the unique backgrounds of the students. Because of economic and family difficulties experienced by many of the students, no one is dropped from the program, regardless of how long it takes to complete course work, and the curriculum is adapted to meet the abilities of each student. Critical to the success of the program, Berardi says, is the "cohort model," an educational approach that organizes the students into groups that provide them with structure and support as they go through the academic program.
"Tribal students live complicated lives," says Phillip Duran, former TENRM program director and professor of science and mathematics at Northwest Indian College. "They face historical, psychological, socio-economic, political, and epistemological issues that we try to address through direct faculty involvement and a well-rounded curriculum."
Duran, from Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, says that he uses metaphors to communicate with his students, particularly the notion of a circle as representing the shape of much that happens in the natural and physical sciences. He notes that physics, mathematics and astronomy use the circle to represent periodicity. "In other contexts, it represents balance, wholeness, perpetuity and non-linearity."
Although tribal colleges often lack resources for teaching science, "they are rich in knowledge that is desperately needed today," says Daniel Wildcat, a visiting lecturer at Northwest Indian College and a professor of American Indian studies at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, KS.
"Native students bring a valuable awareness to the practice of science--a sense of the sacred, something that is not merely appended to their studies and research but intrinsic to their activities," Wildcat says. "Most important, tribal worldviews provide models for allowing human beings to address some of the most serious environmental problems confronting life on the planet today, without falling into ill-advised adversarial arguments around facts v. values, rationality v. faith, nature v. culture and a host of metaphysical dichotomies that preclude an integrated worldview."
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MEDIA NOTE: Berardi will give a talk entitled, The Challenge to Understand Ecosystems Complexity and Scaling: Everything Is Connected: Consequences for Education and Management; Duran will speak on, The Circle of Life & the Indian Operator: Bringing Back the Future and Wildcat will deliver a talk entitled, Schizophrenic Science: Spirit and Reason Reunite. The session on Environmental Science Education in a Tribal College, organized by Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza, professor of biology and chemistry at Northwest Indian College, will take place during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Denver, 8:30 a.m. Mountain Time (10:30 a.m. Eastern Time), Sunday, 16 February.