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Aspiring Native scientists find support and inspiration in national STEM organization

Aspiring Native scientists find support and inspiration in national STEM organization

Thursday, October 18, 2018

For many Native students, a career in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – can often seem impossibly out of reach. 

“There's this idea that Native Americans can't do math or science, so that has led to a culture that actively discourages Natives from entering the sciences,” says Associate Professor of Physics & Engineering Megan Paciaroni. “It is changing, and it has changed a lot. But it also means that Native students often do not receive the support and encouragement they need.” 

And this, she says, is a loss, for both Native peoples and society as a whole. 

"What Native Americans bring to the table in the sciences is a unique way of looking at problems that the world is facing, whether it be environmental problems, energy problems, social problems, or medical problems,” says Paciaroni, who herself is from a Flathead Nation heritage. “We look at things from a different perspective.”

“I think one of the biggest hurdles that Native Americans face and struggle with is the low expectation that society has for them,” she adds. "But if we want Native Americans to excel in the sciences, then we need to get together and talk about these things. We need to help them overcome the hurdles they face."

This is where AISES comes in. The American Indian Science & Engineering Society was founded in 1977, and today has some 4,000 members in 15 professional and more than 180 college chapters, including at Fort Lewis College. AISES also publishes Winds of Change, a magazine focusing on career and educational advancement for indigenous peoples. 

What AISES provides, then, is something basic that is perhaps what aspiring Native scientists need most: positive role models they can identify with in the STEM fields.

The FLC chapter, for which Paciaroni is faculty advisor, has been active since 1989, and twice has been recognized as an outstanding chapter by the national leadership. AISES also recently cited FLC as a "Top 200 Colleges for Indigenous Students" for 2018-19.

“AISES is basically designed to ease some of the difficulties that Native Americans have in the sciences. It’s a place where they see that they can contribute,” says Paciaroni. 

AISES offers its members scholarships, internships, professional development, career-planning resources, and leadership training. Collegiate chapters also provide academic, cultural, and social support, career guidance, and leadership opportunities. 

"AISES was the first club that I joined, and I have been actively involved for three years," says junior Mathematics major Rayna Henry. "As a freshman, all I knew was that I wanted to have a degree in math but didn't know exactly what I wanted to do with the degree once I got it. By joining AISES, I learned that I could basically do anything." 

AISES also hosts conferences that bring together high school and college students, educators, professionals, representatives of tribal governments and businesses, universities, corporations, and government agencies. This fall, nine students from the FLC AISES chapter attended the national conference in Oklahoma City. 

“The AISES national conference is a fantastic opportunity for Native students to meet other Native undergraduate and graduate researchers and professionals, and to look at all the cool research they're doing," says Paciaroni. "It's also an opportunity for students to present their own research. Plus they get to meet with the employers and talk about grad school. They come back from the national conference supercharged.”

Henry, who is now the FLC chapter's vice president, agrees with the value of bringing together Native American talent at the AISES gathering. "I went to last year's national conference in Denver. I'd never been to a conference before, so it was overwhelming," she says. "All these different companies were looking for students in STEM fields. I went to multiple booths and learned what the companies did and who they were looking for."

What AISES provides, then, is something basic that is perhaps what aspiring Native scientists need most: positive role models they can identify with in the STEM fields. Paciaroni recounts a story that highlights the value of those experiences. 

”I was on the phone recently with someone from a graduate program geared towards Native Americans at the University of Arizona," she says. "She was saying that nothing captures her students’ attention more than having another Native American who's well respected in their field, and who comes back and gives a presentation. Because they’re just like other Native students -- all eyes are on them, right?”

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