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 values—that's been really critical to how we think about this future leadership within our tribal communities.
Coordination Hub: Thank you for the context and introduction. How does WaYS work? Who are you serving? What are your philosophies and guiding principles?
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.
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 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.
* 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.