Montana State University

MSU joins national push to increase American Indian participation in STEM fields

June 24, 2014 -- MSU News Service

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN – Montana State University is part of a new national network that has just received $2.4 million to increase the number of indigenous Americans obtaining advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced Monday, June 23, that it is forming a three-year collaboration with the Montana University System, which includes MSU, the University of Montana and Montana Tech; as well as the University of Alaska, the University of Arizona and Purdue University.

The new network, titled the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership (SIGP), is designed to strengthen and expand successful initiatives at each of the four partners to recruit, train and graduate American Indian and Alaska Native students in STEM disciplines.  

“When it comes to meeting the needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students, Alaska, Arizona, Montana, and Purdue are truly exemplary programs,” said Elizabeth S. Boylan, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Now they’re coming together to forge new opportunities and expand their already measurable impact.”  

Karlene Hoo, the SIGP director at MSU and dean of the Graduate School, said, “MSU is pleased that the Sloan Foundation has selected the four partners to fund graduate research that engages underrepresented groups such as the American Indian population that is a large part of the state of Montana."

Boylan said most of the newly awarded funds will go directly to American Indian and Alaska Native students in the form of stipends, providing support to an estimated 59 master’s and 20 Ph.D. students. Other funds will support programming, recruitment, and retention activities at the partner institutions; the collaborative development and sharing of best practices for the recruitment and support of American Indian/Alaska Native graduate students; and the creation of professional development opportunities such as student exchange programs.  

At MSU, Dean Hoo said the funds would be used to “support American Indian students in STEM-related fields in both master’s and doctoral programs.” 

Boylan said American Indian and Alaska Native students have traditionally been underrepresented in graduate education. Though they make up 1.2 percent of the U.S. population, American Indians earned just 0.3 percent of all doctorates in 2012, less than the 0.5 percent share earned 20 years earlier. In engineering plus all science fields other than the social sciences, only 48 research doctorates went to American Indian/Alaska Natives in 2012 among the 11,764 Ph.D.’s awarded to all U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The 20 Ph.D. students who will be funded by the SIGP over the three-year grant are expected to contribute meaningfully to diversifying the national STEM workforce with additional American Indian and Alaska Native graduate-degree holders.  

The historically low level of participation is in part due to the unique challenges graduate study poses to American Indian students, which often include feelings of cultural and social isolation, Boylan said. The national SIGP network aims to reduce these difficulties by creating supportive, welcoming environments. In addition, fellowships help students focus on degree completion, reducing or eliminating the need to earn extra money for living expenses.  

More than 200 American Indian/Alaska Native students have been part of individual SIGP campus programs to date, and graduates are providing expertise and leadership important to their communities, according to Boylan. 

“We are at a significant transition point in the history of the SIGP,” she said. “The campuses are now funded to work cooperatively to leverage their individual efforts into a national presence, to enhance mentoring and professional development across the network, and to continue enabling indigenous American graduate students to succeed in STEM master’s and Ph.D. programs. We are pleased to have the SIGP as one of the signature elements of Sloan’s STEM Higher Education program.”  

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation was established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-president and Chief Executive Officer of the General Motors Corporation. The foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grant making institution that supports original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and economics.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu