By SIPI Early Childhood Education students Aubree Watson, Lila Platero, and Jonetta Damon

SIPI interns Aubree Watson, Lila Platero, Janell Bitsui, and Jonetta Damon.

SIPI interns Aubree Watson, Lila Platero, Janell Bitsui, and Jonetta Damon.

Preparing to become a teacher to Native children is a dream that is becoming a reality for four Early Childhood Education (ECE) student interns at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI). An integral part of SIPI’s For the Wisdom of the Children: Strengthening the Teacher of Color Pipeline grant includes training opportunities for students serving as interns. They learn to deliver culturally relevant Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) experiences to Native children at SIPI’s Early Childhood Learning Center. In addition, they are training to enter the early childhood workforce in their tribal communities as part of SIPI’s Native teacher pipeline.  By providing culturally relevant STEM experiences in their future jobs, as teachers these students can help increase STEM habits in children that will lead them to pursue STEM careers.

Coming from Native communities, students know first-hand how important problem-solving skills integral to STEM learning are. Many tribal communities continue to be challenged with a lack of infrastructure and community members must work to solve problems to meet the daily needs of their families.

SIPI’s interns learn new methods to engage children in STEM experiences, thinking deeply about how these efforts connect to the context of tribal communities from a strength-based view.

Intern Lila Platero says, “Historically Native Americans learned to solve problems by immersing themselves completely into a situation. They learned how to problem-solve and build by being hands on; which helped them to be fully engaged with the problem. Being able to relate to a problem also helps. If children who are born on a reservation know the struggles of having to haul water or chop wood to make a fire to keep warm at night, they understand the importance of solving the situation to help create new effective ways to meet their needs. Our culture is what makes us different from everybody else in the world and teaching it to our children is important because we should never forget where we come from.”

Interns become part of an initiative that elevates Native culture in a way to rectify the past and develop new responsive educational programs for Native children. Students at SIPI come from various tribes from across the United States who have all been impacted by the boarding school era. SIPI’s interns represent the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara -Three Affiliated tribes, White Mountain Apache, Jicarilla, and Navajo nations. As part of their studies, several of them have taken Native American Studies courses and History of Indian education. In addition, they have all heard stories from their parents and families. As a result, they are well informed regarding the need to develop Native teachers who can be more responsive to Native children.

Jonetta Damon, a SIPI student intern, said, “As interns, we are earning the chance to teach Native children as they should have been taught during the boarding school era. Today, teachers who are indigenous have the chance to help repair and reframe the trauma that has been instituted in the lives and history of Native American people. Sadly,  there are not enough Native women and men to fill this role but, at SIPI, having the opportunity to earn a degree as a teacher feels like a chance to educate the Native student, to give them the ability to strive for better lives, or even have the chance to better their communities or their families.”

SIPI’s initiative includes implementation of the Making and Tinkering in STEM model for introducing children to STEM habits such as problem solving. The model utilizes stories as the foundation for STEM design experiences. SIPI’s interns spent time learning how to implement the model with children by participating in their own design experiences. This new model complements what the interns are already learning within their ECE coursework regarding Developmentally Appropriate Practices.

SIPI intern Janell Bitsui works hard on her design project.

During the workshops, interns use limited materials to design art pieces relevant to their tribal communities. These experiences were based upon a thematic story that illustrates the relevance of Native markets in tribal communities.

One intern describes her experience as a training participant. During the design experience she chose to design a piece of jewelry. “Having the chance to create a piece of jewelry from our own tribe and compare it with [those created by] the other interns demonstrated that most of the designs that were created had similarities to other Native cultures. As I constructed a choker, I realized that some of the materials provided were not suitable to fit the needs to duplicate a choker. When creating a choker, there are leather animal skin separators that help keep sections of the beads in place; out of confidence, I decided to make use of foam shaped rectangles to help keep the beads in place. After creating a masterpiece, I felt pleased that I had a fine replica of a choker and at the same time, realized the thought, time, improvisation, and patience that our ancestors had when learning to create jewelry,” she said.

Participating in design experiences help interns, who are preservice teachers, better understand design thinking and problem solving. They are then able to develop strategies to help support children as they think through their own design problems. By using limited materials, interns understood the importance of improvisation and iteration as an important skill to suggest to children. By providing these experiences, interns are better trained to support children in classroom design projects.

A choker designed by SIPI intern using everyday materials.

A choker designed by SIPI intern using everyday materials.

SIPI’s preservice student teachers are learning current best practices to support Native children in their development of STEM habits of mind. These experiences, when made culturally relevant, can help children apply these problem-solving skills within their own tribal communities. Following their training workshop, interns have participated in implementing two design experiences with children at SIPI’s Early Childhood Learning Center.

The future looks bright as Native communities can anticipate a new cadre of teachers ready to support STEM learning for their children.