Native STEAM Camp

The latest edition of Research That Matters, "The Power of Partnership," explores how the UW College of Education is working with schools, educators and communities to make learning come alive for all students. The following story about a College partnership with Native communities to bring culturally relevant STEAM programming to youth also appears in the online version of the magazine.

Fern Renville tells about a visioning exercise she shared with a group of young urban Indians at Seattle’s Red Eagle Soaring theater company, where she serves as executive director.

She asked the kids to imagine what life would be like if America had never been colonized—if their tribes had simply continued “evolving and adapting and becoming” as they had for thousands of years.

“Most of them said we would have abundant, clean, lovely resources, and a beautiful home,” Renville said. “Then one kid said, ‘but we wouldn’t be educated.’”

And that’s the problem.

“A lot of Indian people believe down deep that our ancestors were primitive savages, with no technology, no science,” Renville said. “That’s pretty ugly. Megan Bang is helping us have a larger intellectual context for our work changing those stories.

“Every scientist knows that relationship and observation are at the heart of science. We want to make sure Native kids know we were the continent’s first and most qualified scientists—through our loving observation and relationship with the land.”

Putting imagination back in STEM

Renville’s Red Eagle Soaring is one partner in a multifaceted program for urban Indian youth led by Bang, an associate professor at the UW College of Education and a nationally recognized expert on culturally responsive STEM education.

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, is now in its third year. Centered at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Seattle’s Discovery Park, it also partners with the UW’s Institute for Science + Math Education and Alaska Native representative corporation Sealaska. Its goal is to bring culturally relevant STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) programming to hundreds of urban Native families representing more than 30 tribes from the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

The program includes an annual summer camp focusing on hands-on outdoor science education, Red Eagle Soaring’s theater group, special “Maker Days” where families come together to experience the work of Native master artists, and weekend Family STEAM days.

Adding the arts to STEM is key to the project’s success, Bang said.

“Our projects are trying to get out of learning science as rigid practices defined by western ways of knowing. We’re increasingly trying to provide opportunities for kids to be imaginative and expansive about how they make knowledge about the world. Because science is actually a far more imaginative endeavor than kids are usually led to believe.”

A natural fit, culturally

Matt EchoHawk-Hayashi is an artist who created a series of infographics about local ecosystems for the STEAM summer camp. He’s also a dad of two kids who attend.

“There are so many things my kids love about it. The art programs, the singing—not just music for music’s sake, but songs to initiate certain parts of the day. They really get deep into learning about the tides and all the animals. My older son, who’s nine, is now an expert in all the native plants in the area.

“It’s so affirming for these Indian kids to learn science in a context where their cultural identity isn’t just acknowledged—it’s celebrated. For most if not all of these kids, this is the only opportunity they have to be with their peers for this much time.”

“Some kids are really shy when they start out,” said Sealaska Community Development Manager Nicole Tillotsen, whose Sockeye Summer Camp was a precursor to the current summer program. “Eventually, they’re one of the mentors, showing the younger kids the ropes, and getting more comfortable with educators and adults, which can really help them in their classrooms throughout the year, where they often feel isolated and marginalized.

“In our culture, we’ve always used art and science together. Our halibut hooks, for instance, are designed for sustainability, to only catch mature fish and not the younger ones. Coming at science from that angle, teaching the importance of Western science and connecting it with the knowledge of their ancestors, makes a very natural fit.”

Bang said that reconnecting Native youth to their unique cultural approach to science also has implications for the greater practice of science.

“Getting kids reconnected to engaging in land-based investigations—what is increasingly being thought about as Field STEM—given the challenges like climate change that we face, raises implications for how we need to teach and learn science differently to everyone,” Bang said. “Because when people have real relationships with land, they reason differently, they make decisions differently. When we teach kids to value and respect and understand complex ecosystems and people’s role in them, that’s a meaningful call to action.”

Native STEAM Camp

Creating STEAM-powered partnerships

“I want people to understand it’s not just UW folks designing these programs and then going in and implementing them,” Bang said. “Everything we do, from developing protocols to looking at data, is co-designed and fully engaged with community members.”

Sealaska’s Tillotsen said her organization deeply appreciates that powerful emphasis on equal give and take.

“It’s an incredible partnership,” Tillotsen said. “It’s challenging to find educators who know and understand how to teach with cultural understanding in STEM fields. A socially focused for-profit business paired with an educational institution has so many interesting opportunities to explore. And since it’s a research project, we’re able to show tangible results and measurements to funders and community partners.”

“I would never have partnered with any entity who I didn’t feel had a very respectful approach,” Renville said. “Where service delivery meets academia, where community meets academia, both parties have a lot to learn. There’s no person who’s better to partner with than Megan Bang. She’s such a powerful advocate for us and for the work—she has the heart of a lion.”

Changing the story with science

Renville remembers one kid in the program asking her why they had to do science at all.

“Before I could answer, another kid spoke up and said, ‘we don’t have to, but we want to. We’re Indians, so we’re always going to care about this stuff.’”

That’s exactly the shift in mindset that Renville said is so needed.

“Right now, we’re doing a play of the creation story of the Snoqualmie tribe. It’s about a deity who comes to change the world, to make it ready for the ones to come. That’s what these Indian kids are doing right now. Kids who felt stigmatized start to become really proud, and identify the power and strength and resiliency in our culture. They’re reclaiming our roles as Indian scientists and thinkers and artists. They’re going to be the tellers of a new story.”


Building a pipeline of Native scientists

Sealaska Community Development Manger Nicole Tillotsen says partnering with Megan Bang in STEAM education for Native youth is having one important impact that might not be fully felt for decades.

“We’re a for-profit company with businesses in environmental services, environmental construction, data analytics, natural resources, and natural foods and seafood,” Tillotsen said. “We chose those industries because they’re aligned with our core Native values—and they’re all within STEAM.”

Tillotsen says her goal is to leverage Bang’s STEAM program to develop Native youth who are passionate about these industries, and continue to offer support and encouragement as the program’s young participants reach high school and college age. “We have internships and scholarships in these areas. We’re wanting to build this pipeline of youth who understand the businesses we work in, and have a background and interest in those things.”

“The tribal fisheries here in the Northwest are leading the globe on research,” said Red Eagle Soaring Executive Director Fern Renville. “It would be cool if that field had more Native people in it. And to see Native people able to participate more fully in our own resources and our relationship with those resources. I’m looking forward to when Northwest fisheries management and response to climate change is deeply impacted by tribal leadership and example—with kids from our program in leadership roles.”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications