Montana State University

MSU team wins grant to study informal science education in Yellowstone region, Altai Republic

June 3, 2013 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

A Montana State University research team has been awarded a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how indigenous peoples’ native language use in two similar yet distinct parts of the world supports environmental science learning. The collaborative research project will focus on the Yellowstone region of the western United States and the Altai Republic of south-central Russia. Members of the team, pictured here from left to right, are: Christine Rogers Stanton, Shane Doyle, Jason Baldes, Michael Brody, Cliff Montagne and Art Bangert. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University team has been awarded a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how indigenous peoples’ native language use in two similar yet distinct parts of the world supports environmental science learning.

The collaborative research project will focus on the Yellowstone region of the western United States and the Altai Republic of south-central Russia.

As part of the project, MSU faculty and five Native American students from the MSU system will make three month-long trips to the Altai Republic over the course of three years. There, they will work with faculty and students at Gorno-Altaisk State University to research how isolated rural and urban populations use Native language to learn about environmental science concepts. The first research trip will take place this year.

In addition, the students will conduct similar research in their own Native communities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The project is intended to enhance the participation of Native American students, and especially women, in education activities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“Because the Altai and Yellowstone systems are so ecologically and culturally similar, bringing Native people together from the two systems should create a synergy,” said Michael Brody, MSU education professor and one of the grant’s principal investigators.

“In the Altai, it’s exciting to see the support schools and communities give to children in terms of sustaining indigenous language and culture,” said Christine Rogers Stanton, an assistant professor of education at MSU who is also a co-principal investigator of the grant. “We’re excited to see how people in the Altai promote this original content.”

The Altai Republic comprises an area about the size of New York State and borders Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. It is noted for its mountains and for being remote and sparsely inhabited, with a population of about 200,000. Because of its unique ecological and cultural characteristics, parts of the Altai Republic have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.

After students and faculty at the two universities conduct and analyze their research, they plan to create an encyclopedia of Native language and its use in informal science learning. The results will be shared with other Native communities.

“Through our research, we hope that aspects of environmental science that are embedded in the knowledge and language use of Native societies will be better understood and taken into consideration for future environmental research and educational activities,” Brody said.

He added that the team hopes the research will help make science education more effective, and thus help empower communities to meet challenges of ecological and cultural sustainability.

MSU faculty and students already have been working on the project for several years. Earlier this year, a team of five MSU faculty and students traveled to the Altai Republic to conduct a two-day planning workshop with colleagues at Gorno-Altaisk State University. It was the research team’s second planning trip.

While in the Altai Republic, the MSU team also met with community members of two Altai villages to discuss informal ecological learning.

“Ecological learning acknowledges the fact that most learning takes place outside of school,” Brody said. “It’s experiential, it’s personal, it’s social, and it takes place over time.” 

Brody’s work in Russia dates back to the mid-1990s, when he traveled to a community near the Ural Mountains to serve as an EPA-supported education consultant. Approximately 60 educators from Russia also came to study at MSU in the late ‘90s. Since then, Brody said he has taken two trips to Russia, including one on a Teachers Fulbright Study Abroad award to conduct workshops along an 8,000-mile stretch of the Siberian railroad.

“I decided it would be rewarding to continue our work in the Altai,” Brody said. “The Altai region is clean and beautiful, much like our home here in the Yellowstone region. Altai people are friendly, and their communities have a great identity.”

In 2009, Cliff Montagne, now an MSU emeritus professor of soil science, contacted Brody to discuss putting together a research project in the Altai Republic. Brody agreed and wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation Office of International Science and Engineering for a planning grant. In 2010, the proposal won $75,000 from the National Science Foundation, which enabled the MSU team to conduct research planning workshops with Gorno-Altaisk State University and explore their shared interests.

Jason Baldes, a graduate student in land resources and environmental sciences who traveled to the Altai Republic with the MSU team for planning workshops earlier this year, said the partnership between the two universities will be beneficial for both.

“Visiting the Altai Republic will allow us to learn more about the language, culture and relationships there,” he said. “Both places will be able to learn so much from one another.”

Baldes is from Fort Washakie, Wyo., and is an enrolled member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. He plans to travel to the Altai Republic again this year with the MSU group.

MSU faculty participating in the project include Brody, Stanton and Art Bangert from the Department of Education; Shane Doyle from the Department of Native American Studies and an enrolled member of the Crow tribe; and Montagne from the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences.

Students from any discipline are invited to apply to participate. Brody said that in addition to MSU students from the Bozeman campus, students from MSU’s other campuses are welcome to apply.

The research project is part of MSU’s Educators Without Borders program, which is designed to give students the opportunity to work in educational contexts throughout the world. The program is run through the MSU Department of Education.

Students who are interested in participating are encouraged to contact Brody at brody@montana.edu.

Contact: Michael Brody, (406) 994-5951 or brody@montana.edu