Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Making a Connection to Field Geoscience for Native American Youth through Culture, Nature, and Community

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Making a Connection to Field Geoscience for Native American Youth through Culture, Nature, and Community

Article excerpt

Introduction

Background

Although 1.2% of the total population of the United States identify as Native American (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013b), academic achievement of Native Americans is limited. The population of Native Americans and Alaska Natives in California is just over 710,000 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013a). In 2010, only 3,624 (.695%) of 525,374 science and engineering degrees were awarded to Native Americans in the United States. Only 44 (.92%) out of 4,802 total degrees in Earth, atmosphere, or ocean sciences were granted to Native Americans in 2010 (National Science Foundation, 2013). The high school dropout rate for Native American high school students is also 117% higher than that of their white counterparts (Smagorinsky, Anglin, & O'Donnell-Allen, 2012). Fields requiring degreed expertise, such as economic development, health services, and resource management, continue to be challenges for communities (Bang & Medin, 2010). Particularly, lack of expertise in the geosciences continues to be a persistent issue for reservation-based tribal communities as they work to manage water resources, mineral exploration, and environmental stewardship (Unsworth, Riggs, & Chavez, 2012).

Tribal members who have degrees in geoscience or related scientific expertise are beneficial for their communities in that they are in a position to be authentic bearers of their cultures and community values while also having scientific expertise to help manage the technical aspects of sovereign control over resources afforded to reservation governments in the United States and Canada. This avoids situations that have been encountered historically by some tribes with non-Native American geoscientists working on tribal lands. These have ranged from mismatch of cultural priorities and approaches in prioritizing land or resource use to data confidentiality and security (Unsworth et al., 2012).

Given the clear value of geoscientific education, training, and expertise to tribal communities, it is necessary to better understand why the persistent discrepancy in degree achievement exists. This discrepancy is at least partially influenced by socioeconomic status (SES), in that poverty rates are high on many reservations and young people may not attend a college program they cannot afford. Native American learners are also often first-generation college students, so economic factors are compounded by barriers to college entry and success typical of many first-generation students. From a curricular perspective, the disparity between mainstream science and traditional indigenous educational approaches creates even more difficult transitions for Native American learners (Aikenhead, 1996; Bang & Medin, 2010; Cajete, 1999; Elliott, 2009; Garrett, 1995; Ingalls, Hammond, Dupoux, & Baeza, 2006; Marsiglia, Cross, & Mitchell-Enos, 1999; Medina-Jerez, 2008; Van Hamme, 1996; Wilson, 1991).

Often, it is assumed that mainstream science education is acultural, and thereby applicable and approachable for all learners. However, as Bang and Medin (2010) expressed, "there is no cultureless or neutral perspective in learning." Rather, Western science education is embedded in Western European culture (Aikenhead, 1997; Bang & Medin, 2010). Western science education, like any expression of culture, has a set of values, expectations, and actions. The culture of Western science is described by the social studies of science as, "mechanistic ... reductionist ... decontextualized ... mathematically idealized, communal, ideological, masculine, elitist, competitive, exploitive, impersonal and violent" (Aikenhead, 1997, p. 220).

Significant incongruencies exist between Western scientific education and Native American understandings related to differences in time concepts, human relationship with the Earth, and the importance of interactions between natural systems (Bang & Medin, 2010). Students whose home culture and school culture are dissimilar must strategize how to simultaneously hold differing, and sometimes conflicting, worldviews. …

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