A child dips her feet in Wheatfields Lake on the Navajo Reservation at sunrise and wonders what lies beneath.  A young boy walks through the forests of Menominee Nation, shaded by tall green trees, surrounded by the stories and history of this sacred environmental wonder.  Native children on the Fort Peck reservation in Montana participate in ceremonies for their relatives, Tatanka Oyate, the bison who have returned to their homelands to live and thrive. Growth on the forest floor in the Menominee Nation forest in Wisconsin.

Within these explorations, the seeds of Indigenous STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are growing.  What possibilities exist for teachers and families and communities to build on the wonder and wisdom of Native children across Indian country as a way of teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in an Indigenous way?

The work of the College Fund’s Tribal College and University (TCU) Early Childhood Education (ECE) Initiatives is built on the principle that Native communities are the best educators of their earliest learners.  The current initiative, For the Wisdom of the Children: Strengthening the Teacher of Color Pipeline, is a $1.5 million, two-year project funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, designed to center STEM teaching and learning within Native communities.  The primary strategy is to strengthen teacher education at TCUs, developing Native early childhood education teachers in the STEM fields from within Native communities.

Buffalo hide story board used by the College of Menominee Nation as an early childhood teaching aid activity.

TCUs are the intellectual centers in Native communities, created by tribes. TCUs are also innovators in the STEM fields, incorporating interdisciplinary scholarship and community action in their teaching and learning. By training teachers in early childhood education and providing early learning centers for the children of students and faculty, TCUs are community centerpieces for the efforts to raise children from birth to their entrance into the formal system of schooling, and to train the next generation of teachers.

Building on the strong connection between an educational focus on STEM and Native children’s respect for and belief in the natural world, this initiative will contribute enormously to children’s opportunities for learning and careers in science through developing teachers from within Native communities.  In addition, this initiative will have a great impact in strengthening the teacher of color pipeline, the metaphor frequently used to depict the pathway in the education and development of teachers of color.  Often, teachers of color, and specifically Native teachers, drop out of the pipeline along the way to becoming teachers, for a variety of reasons.

This initiative will create a continuum of practice, which includes parents, students in teacher education programs at TCUs, first-year teachers, and experienced teachers.  Individuals will move along the continuum as they continue to be engaged with this initiative at TCUs.  In this way, the initiative will bring together multiple perspectives at TCU sites to strengthen TCU teacher education programs, develop strong Native teachers, and create effective early childhood education in STEM for our earliest learners.

Scenic image of the rocky shore and low light on the Salish Sea in Washington State, near the Lummi Reservation

For the Wisdom of the Children builds on the College Fund’s earlier TCU ECE Initiatives, starting with the Wakanyeja “Sacred Little Ones” initiativeThe Five Domains of work — strengthening early childhood teacher quality and instruction, strategic and intergenerational family and community engagement, documenting children’s developmental skills (cognitive and non-cognitive), integration of Native language and culture, and successful pathways from Pre-K to K-3 and beyond — have provided the foundational focus for the College Fund’s TCU ECE initiatives.  For the Wisdom of the Children puts a primary focus on the first domain, teacher education.  All five domains are connected in each initiative; in this project, teacher education is the door through which we enter this work, and through which we connect to the other domains.

Each site will engage, individually and across sites, in the Strategic Cycles of Educational Transformation to build, develop, and share their work.  The strategic cycles include:

  • Vision
  • Systems Development
  • Implementation
  • Authentic Assessment
  • Reflection, Dissemination, & Sustainability

Five TCUs were awarded grants in this first year of the initiative.

Fond Du Lac Tribal Community College (FDLTCC), in Cloquet, Minnesota, will implement Minogi’aawaso Maajigii (Raise Children in a Good Way as They Grow), developing a culturally responsive, emergent bilingual early childhood education program incorporating Anishinaabe cultural standards within the curriculum.

Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College (KBOCC), in Baraga, Michigan, will develop Gimaadaadisimin (We All Start a Journey), creating an Anishinaabe early childhood education conference for educators and future teachers, focusing on incorporating STEM and Indigenous knowledges together within a cogent philosophy of teaching.

Northwest Indian College (NWIC), in Bellingham, Washington, through Engaging Native Children in STEM: What Our X’epy (Cedar People) and Scha’nexw (Salmon People) Can Teach Us about the World and Cosmology, will partner with the Lummi Nation to integrate traditional names of local foods, plants, animals, and medicines into course curricula for teacher education programs across seven locations, centering Lummi culture and language in the education of Lummi ECE teachers.

Salish Kootenai College (SKC), in Pablo, Montana, will implement Our People’s Timeline: Community STEM Education, Season by Season, a three-part series guided by the seasonal rounds of the Se̓liš, Ql̓ispé, and Ksanka people, incorporating topics within the ecological, physical, biological, and chemical sciences.

Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI), in Albuquerque, New Mexico, will develop Strengthening Our Collective Capacity: A Community-Based Initiative Supporting Early Childhood STEM Opportunities & Teacher Development, an effort to create culturally-relevant STEM ECE training for local teachers and students in their teacher education program by partnering with the Bureau of Indian Education and engaging in community-based dialogue to gather feedback.

With the goal of reaching 100 teachers per site, the project directors at these five TCUs gathered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in September, 2018, to launch the initiative.  In October, 2018, project directors will participate in a national panel discussion at the National Indian Education Association annual convention in Hartford, Connecticut.  The session, Moving Towards Native Community Vibrancy through Teacher Education and Development, sponsored by NIEA’s Native Educators Education and Development (NEED) subcommittee, will dig into effective strategies for Indigenous teacher education and development, particularly in early childhood education, within Native communities.  In November, 2018, project directors will present their work in a session as part of the Tribal and Indigenous Early Childhood Network (TIECN) forum at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) annual conference in Washington, DC.  The session, titled For the Wisdom of the Children: Best practices in strengthening Native teacher education in early childhood and STEM, will focus on best practices in preparing the next generation of Native STEM early childhood education teachers.

A winter scene with a wooden sculpture of people in a canoe on the campus of Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Wash.

A winter scene with a wooden sculpture on the campus of Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Wash.

The work of this initiative focuses locally within communities to develop and strengthen teacher education, developing Native STEM ECE teachers along a continuum of practice, and nationally to influence the broader work and conversation about strengthening the teacher of color pipeline.  In Spring 2019, project directors will come together to reflect on Year One of the initiative, looking to grow more TCUs within the initiative, solidify current TCUs as learning and mentoring sites, and plan together for the expansion and sustainability of teacher education programs in our Native communities.  For the Wisdom of the Children, the current initiative with the College Fund’s TCU ECE Initiatives, will play a critical role in strengthening teachers and programs where they are, developing Native ECE teachers in the STEM fields, expanding Indigenous STEM across Native communities, and growing the interest, knowledge, and dreams of Native children in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for generations to come.

Follow the College Fund’s TCU ECE Initiatives via Twitter:  @Wakanyeja_ECE