Under a National Science Foundation grant, students in the third through eighth grades have been paired with mentors in a program designed to train them toward studies and careers in science and engineering.
The University of Arizona program, called the iSTEM project, uniquely combines one-on-one mentoring with science and engineering exploration for American Indian students, also involving tribal community members.
"Given the serious environmental problems we face today, engaging students from diverse backgrounds into helping us think about, explore and care for our world is a very important for all of us," said Corey Knox, iSTEM's curriculum designer and a UA doctoral student in science education.
Designed and facilitated by the UA's Southwest Institute for Research on Women, or SIROW, the program first was funded and launched in 2012. In addition to tribal community members, UA students and industry professionals are volunteering to work with students.
Since then, SIROW and its partners have worked with more than 30 Yaqui youth in two Tucson schools.
As part of the project, mentors work directly with students, completing various hands-on educational units during the lunch hour. Two additional units, at four sessions each, will be completed by the end of the semester.
Upon completing each unit, which spans four or five weeks, the mentors and mentees visit science sites in Southern Arizona such as the UA Flandrau Science Center and the Pima Air and Space Museum to learn more about the topic of each unit.
Knox along with Rachel Paz, iSTEM's project coordinator, have developed and packaged more than 20 interactive science activities covering topics that include solar robotics, optics and astronomy.
"These activities combine western science and traditional Native American knowledge related to the natural world into short hands-on activities that can be completed during a school lunch hour," said Paz, a UA doctoral student of Mexican American studies.
The team also sends activities home with students, allowing them to involve their family members.
"It has been exciting to develop what we are calling, 'flash science activities' that are both educational and meaningful but that also connect to the lived, situated lives and traditions of native students," Knox said.
"Yaquis and other indigenous peoples carry with them rich and detailed understandings of the land and the natural world," Knox said. "Connecting this rich traditional knowledge to western science is really the ultimate goal of these learning experiences for the students we are working with."
Along the way, the iSTEM team has learned a number of valuable lessons and have engaged a number of resources. Among them, as Knox noted:
It is hugely important to work with students in their home communities, involving their families.
The more closely activities relate to the everyday lives of youth, the more engaged they are in science.
Educational opportunities exist most everywhere, but creative thought is essential. For example, youth can be engaged in science projects focusing on the sky and ground at any moment.
The UA maintains a broad range of science education resources, which are available to K-12 students, educators and communities.
Individuals need not be professionally trained scientists to mentor and encourage students toward science and engineering. In fact, iSTEM mentors and volunteers not only represent science and engineering, but also the social sciences and humanities.
Knox said that while many of the students engaged in the iSTEM project have never been to the UA, the engagement is proving to be supportive and beneficial to them. And it is through community partnerships that the program has been possible.
"The science community at UA has been amazing and supportive to our students and program," Knox said. "Tucson is a science city, and we hope we are creating life-long connections for these students and their families to important and exciting science discoveries happening here."