Montana State University

Program aims to strengthen science education on and near Indian reservations in Montana

November 16, 2010 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service


The Big Sky Science Partnership trains science teachers on or near American Indian reservations in Montana. Larry Ericksen, left, and Mike Flamm, both teachers in Hardin, are pictured here assembling a telescope during a class session. Photo courtesy of Big Sky Science Partnership/Elisabeth Swanson.    High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN - After Dora Hugs enrolled in a program designed to strengthen science education for Native American students, the science teacher at St. Charles Mission School in Pryor and member of the Crow tribe decided to invite Crow elders into her classroom to tell science-related stories.

"One elder related a story about how our ancestors knew about the stars," she said. "Another elder showed how she was taught to tell the longest day of the year and the shortest day of the year."

Hugs invited the elders into her classroom because the classes offered through the Big Sky Science Partnership emphasized the importance of making science lessons culturally relevant, she said. The approach was successful, she added, because "the students saw that (science) wasn't just the teacher's point of view."

Hugs is just one example of a teacher who believes she -- and her students -- have benefited from the Big Sky Science Partnership, which aims to improve science education on and near American Indian reservations in Montana.

The program is a collaboration of Montana State University, the University of Montana and Salish-Kootenai College, the lead collaborator. It trains science teachers on or near reservations in the state and is funded by a five-year, $4.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation. In addition to the original NSF grant, which was awarded in the fall of 2006, the program received a total of $900,000 in supplementary funding from the NSF Math and Science Partnership in 2008 and 2009.

"The Big Sky Science Partnership is doing great things," said Elisabeth Swanson, director of the project at MSU. "It works with teachers to help them feel more comfortable teaching physical sciences. It also helps teachers connect traditional science knowledge with topics that are culturally relevant, and to use inquiry-based teaching methods." Inquiry-based teaching invites students to explore subjects by posing, investigating and answering questions, putting students' questions at the center of the curriculum.

At MSU, the Big Sky Science Partnership began with 16 teachers in the summer of 2007. A second group of 17 students started in the summer of 2009.

Teachers who are enrolled in the program have bachelor's degrees and are currently working in elementary or middle schools. They receive tuition, a computer, stipend support and, if needed, Internet access.

The class schedule varies throughout the program. Students attend a two-week summer institute at a tribal college each June that introduces science topics for the coming year. Then, the students gather in person once a month for classes, with MSU professors commuting to various locations near the students' communities to teach. In the summer, the students travel to MSU to deliver - or observe - capstone presentations. The rest, or majority, of the coursework is completed online.

"We've been working with middle school and high school teachers since 2001, but this program gave us the chance to work with elementary teachers," Swanson said.

She noted that about one-third of the students in the program are Native Americans.

And, the program is designed to help even seasoned science teachers.

"Many of the teachers are experienced and have been in the field for 10 to 20 years, but they tend to rely on using a textbook," Swanson said. "This program emphasizes experiments and field investigations that are less cookbook and more open-ended."

Swanson emphasized that the benefits to the teachers enrolled in the Big Sky Science Partnership translate directly to the students in their classrooms.

"Research shows that students are more engaged and have improved test scores when they learn material using these methods (that the program emphasizes)," Swanson said.

Most of the students in the program opt to pursue a master's degree in science education, which requires 30 credits. Program participants who do not work toward a master's degree earn 24 master's-level continuing education credits by the end of the three-year program.

Based on preliminary data gathered, Swanson believes the program has been successful.

"In some of the districts, students' test scores are improving," she said. "We think it's an impact of the teachers feeling more confident in general, and teaching more science than they did before.

"We also observe each teacher twice a year and have documented teachers connecting lessons to things in students' lives," she said. "There has also been an increase in teachers using technology in science lessons and of more open-ended laboratories."

The teachers self-report that they're teaching science more, Swanson said, and pre-test and post-test statistics show teachers' science knowledge has improved at all of the sites.

Students who have participated in the program are enthusiastic about it and say it has helped them become better teachers.

Hugs, the science teacher in Pryor, said the Big Sky Science Partnership gives her more confidence when teaching science. She especially appreciates how the program focuses on Native culture.

"That really helped me, because before, I felt like science wasn't part of my culture."

Mike Flamm, who is completing the program while working as an eighth grade science teacher and coach in Hardin, said the program sets teachers up for success.

"The (instructors and administrators) bend over backwards and do everything they can to help," he said. "They consider our schedules and are very flexible."

Flamm said the program keeps him busy, but since most of the work is done online, he is able to do it at times that are convenient for him.

Flamm's wife, Devon Flamm, is also enrolled in the program. A fourth grade teacher in Hardin, she said she particularly appreciates the cultural aspect the Big Sky Science Partnership emphasizes.

"One example is astronomy," she said. "There are so many Crow and Northern Cheyenne stories about astronomy. It really helps to bring in those stories. They become part of the lesson, not a separate part."

Going through the program while simultaneously holding full-time jobs and raising two young daughters can be difficult, but it's worth it, Devon Flamm said.

"You have to devote a lot of time to the program, but in the long run, it's great for me and my family."

The Flamms both encourage others interested in the Big Sky Science Partnership to enroll in the program.

"This program does everything it can to make it a good deal for the teachers," Mike Flamm said. "I would highly recommend it."

"We would never have been able to get our master's degrees if we were paying at the same time," Devon Flamm said.

"It's an amazing program with so many benefits," she added.

For related articles, see:

"MSU helps improve American Indians' access to education via distance programs" at http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=7203

"Program to place American Indians in school leadership roles is working, participants say" at
http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=6109

Elisabeth Swanson, (406) 994-5952 or eswanson@montana.edu