Wabanaki Youth Science (WaYS) Program Connects Native Students to STEM through Culture and Heritage

Photo Credit: Wabanaki Youth Science Project (WaYS)The NSF INCLUDES Coordination Hub is always interested in learning and sharing project updates and stories with Network members. As part of this process, we recently spoke with the Wabanaki Youth Science (WaYS) program, a NSF INCLUDES-funded DDLP (Design and Development Launch Pilot) based in Penobscot County, Maine, to learn more about how WaYS is supporting Wabanaki students to embrace STEM fields, especially environmental science, through culture and heritage. The official WaYS program, which began in 2012, is currently a collaboration between the University of Maine at Orono, the U.S. Forest Service, Wabanaki tribes, and Native American high school students across the state. It became a DDLP with the NSF INCLUDES grant in 2017 to expand the work from high school into postsecondary careers.In the last three years, WaYs has influenced 15% more Native students being admitted to the University of Maine in a STEM field. The project's goals are to:
  • Create and integrate curriculum that embraces Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and western science as equal partners;
  • Develop and implement protocols for an ongoing mentorship program for WaYS and STREAM engineering students;
  • Develop a framework to bridge the gap between high school and college;
  • Foster collaboration among Community Elders, Cultural Knowledge Keepers and University of Maine faculty in a model that could be transferred to other communities.

    WaYS is one of several NSF INCLUDES projects and National Network members working with the Indigenous communities. Many of these projects created a peer-led “affinty group” in the National Network online community as a way to bring together NSF INCLUDES launch pilot awardees interested in Indigenous STEM, where the term Indigenous comprises the terms Native American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Hawaiian Native. The WaYS program, among others, is a member of the Indigenous STEM Affinity Group. 


    • Darren Ranco, Ph.D., Chair of Native American Programs, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Coordinator of Native American Research, University of Maine 
    • tish carr, Program Manager, Wabanaki Youth in Sciences (WaYS) Program 
    • John Neptune, Recreation Manager, Penobscot Nation

    The interview been edited and condensed for format and brevity. 

    Coordination Hub: How did your project begin and how has it evolved over time? 

    Darren Ranco: We always are taught to think about the future generations in our tribe. It's that community-based orientation of how do we train, create pathways for training and building this next generation of Native folks who will assume leadership positions, both inside and outside our tribal government, where they can use not only their Western education that we're really pushing them towards, but also our Indigenous knowledge, traditions and valuesthat's been really critical to how we think about this future leadership within our tribal communities. 

    Native students obviously benefit from our pedagogy and mentorship programs, but so do non-Native students.The WaYS program was developed, first, with middle and high school students [in 2011], and then with the INCLUDES grant in 2017, this is where we brought it to the University of Maine and into a post-secondary context, which was pretty different for us. We had our pedagogical and mentorship philosophies worked out, but the challenge was to bring it into majority non-Native spaces, where we had much more mixed and majority non-Native educational context, while maintaining some of the programs that were primarily for Native students. Native students obviously benefit from our pedagogy and mentorship programs, but so do non-Native students. They are also really energized and have more effective learning outcomes in classrooms where Indigenous science and values are present. 

    Photo Credit: Wabanaki Youth Science Project (WaYS)Coordination Hub: Thank you for the context and introduction. How does WaYS work? Who are you serving? What are your philosophies and guiding principles?

    John Neptune: tish carr actually approached me and talked about this concept of integrating the science with the culture and tradition, and I just thought it was a fantastic idea as a way to get the youth more into college. I thought it went hand in hand because, at the time, we had very few tribal youth going to college for the environmental field, and I think the WaYS program has increased the number by quite a bit. WaYS is having those students and getting that cultural knowledge as a way to get their foot in the door, to be like, "Okay, well, you like to fish, well, look if you like fishing, then you can go to school for fisheries or water quality or anything like that. Or if you like getting bark or you like making baskets from the trees, well, look, you can be a forester."

    I think it opened the doors, not only for them, but it's been a learning experience for me as well to get these youth involved because I think, now, we need it more than ever where the youth have changed quite a bit and I think integrating the science and the culture go hand in hand. I think, traditionally, cultural people have been scientists for thousands of years, so I think with the Western science, they just found a way to put it on paper and explain it better. What we do is, whatever we do culturally, we try to get that Western science background to fit into what we did culturally. In reality, we're doing traditional values that, I don't ever want to say that were lost, but they were just sleeping for a while, and we're just waking those up by doing them.   

    Interns that have gone all the way through and are in college, or graduated, come back, full circle, and give back to the youth that are coming in, the younger ones. They're once the student, now they're the teacher, and they share how that helped them go through college and they develop this mentorship with the younger kids as well. It's a full circle thing, and it just seems to be growing and growing and it's just phenomenal. 

    Coordination Hub:
    How do you connect students with their internships, connecting them to the colleges, and how many students go into the STEM fields based on their experience in the WaYS program? 

    tish carr: I was doing my master's work and we were developing the program with all community-based, Cultural Knowledge Keepers, Community Elders, our WaYS students—everyone had a very integral part in developing what this program looked like from a high school perspective. We were starting to see that same challenge that high school students, Native high school students, had in high school with the barriers being, again, replicated in college. If you have a successful high school program, they're all going to the University and now, all of a sudden, they're hitting a wall, you still don't have a successful program because you need them to be advancing in the college aspect of it. That's how the INCLUDES grant really got started was so we can emulate what we've done in our high school model and bring it to post-secondary education, and not only benefit Native youth, but non-Native youth as well. 

    The WaYS program has made a huge difference with the students. One of the things that is a very different model, besides the fact that it is community-based, grassroots driven, is that we do make sure that we work with students year-round because the internships and camps are year-round. One of our students who was in high school started working at the University of Maine as a freshman. She had an internship her entire years in high school. By the time she was a senior in high school, she was basically running the lab, teaching the undergrad work-study students how to do the work as a senior in high school. It's been very exciting to see the growth and see how much confidence she has gained. When she started University as a freshman, she was already used to the campus. It wasn't that big a deal. She already knew a lot of the professors on a first-name basis. And the more that we can make those connections with the students, the more the walls will be brought down, and that continuity, that consistency, you don't get if you're just there for a semester. 

    The challenge we have now is integrating more cultural science into some of the STEM fields and getting more faculty to embrace this idea that cultural science is a valued science. But our next step really is to try to get that, as much as we can, integrated into at least some of the classes on a regular basis and bringing in Cultural Knowledge Keepers. That is a wealth of knowledge that you don't find anywhere else and everybody benefits, including Western science folks. 

    Darren Ranco: We are looking for paradigm shifts. We find real hope and cause and results through what would require a more fundamental shift in the pedagogies that frame our science education. 

    We are incredibly grateful for the INCLUDES opportunity because it really opened a lot of doors for us. In the big picture, we’re pretty small fish, and INCLUDES is a really big deal for us and, without the INCLUDES grant, we wouldn’t be having the opportunity right now with you all to showcase exactly what we’re doing and the opportunities that are there.tish carr: We are incredibly grateful for the INCLUDES opportunity because it really opened a lot of doors for us. In the big picture, we're pretty small fish, and INCLUDES is a real big deal for us and, without the INCLUDES grant, we wouldn't be having the opportunity right now with you all to showcase exactly what we're doing and the opportunities that are there. But it would be awesome if there was a mechanism for something like us and what we do. We don't quite have the infrastructure that we need right at the moment, but we have the tenacity, definitely have the passion. There's enough passion for us to do anything and I think that's why we are as successful as we are because everyone that's involved is incredibly passionate about what we're doing.  

    One of the things that we did learn is that maybe change can come from graduate students and undergrads, and because they are our future and because if they're doing graduate work, they're going to be our future educators and academics. 

    Coordination Hub: Thank you again for the work you're doing and your time to share this with us. Is there anything that you want to either share or continue learning from the NSF INCLUDES National Network? 

    John Neptune: I just want to tell you that the impact that this has made and other resources, we could never truly put on paper. You've got youth and you've got mentors and you've got networking that's going on that'll go on much longer than the funding that comes in. And I just can't say enough how grateful I am for everybody that's been helping, all you guys, and it's been Photo Credit: Wabanaki Youth Science Project (WaYS)fantastic. I think that's always a challenge is we want to do so much, right, but just our resources are limited and so we do the best that we can with what we have and I think all of us give more than what some of our families would probably want us to do, but it's such an important job to do and the impacts are just incredible. 

    tish carr: Our work has been transformational for many Native youth. Something that is often hard to quantify but that is incredibly important to continue. How can you put a value on change? Sometimes the shorter time frames do not always allow one to see the longer-term benefit that our work has accomplished. That is one of the incredibly gratifying aspects that John, Darren and I have been fortunate to be a part of—to have worked with many of these students for multiple years. To see what many Native youth are now doing after high school graduation, in college and for a few, beyond college, has been amazing. The students’ understanding of both knowledges (cultural science and western science that Darren referred to as "two-eyed seeing"*) and the empowerment that provides for them is where much of the change will happen in the future. As an example, forestry students learn many things about trees, their height, their common and Latin name, where they grow, and the board feet provided. Information that is quantifiable. With the addition of Cultural Knowledge Keepers, students also learn the history and stories of the birch tree. Students learn that birch trees provide not only board feet for lumber but a means of transportation (canoes), tools for gathering food (bowls), and medicinal benefits to heal and stay healthy. The value of a birch tree goes beyond how many board feet it provides.  

    * The term comes from Albert Marshall, a Mi’kmaw elder; Etuaptmumk is the word in the Mi'kmaw language


    Want to learn more and connect with the WaYS team? You can connect with Darren Ranco or tish carr through the National Network and learn more about WaYS through their website. You can also join the Indigenous STEM Affinity Group in the National Network to learn and connect more with the programs working with Indigenous populations.