Montana State University

Smith receives NSF grant to study Native American women's success in science, technology

January 5, 2011

The National Science Foundation has awarded MSU psychology professor Jessi Smith and a former MSU colleague a $217,859 grant to study factors of success in Native American women studying science and technology.    High-Res Available

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Jessi L. Smith, a psychology professor at Montana State University, recently received a $217,859 grant from the National Science Foundation for a study that may provide insights into how to help promote success for Native American students studying science, math and engineering.

Smith and Anneke Metz, a former MSU psychology professor now at the University of Southern Illinois, have teamed up on the project. The two are working to understand how the gender experience impacts Native American student success in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Native Americans, particularly female Native Americans, are under-represented in the fields and Smith and Metz hope to provide insights on how Native women going into the fields can stay and become successful.

Increasing Native participation in the STEM fields is important, Smith said, because society is shaped by science and technology. Not only is participation from diverse populations important to under-represented cultures, but diversity in the sciences helps society as a whole because it leads to higher-quality decisions, products and innovations, she said.

Smith also believes that studying Native women in STEM fields in particular is key because the increase in Native American students entering college since 1994 appears to be due mostly to the increased college enrollment of Native American women, she said.

"Therefore, it is critical to study the impact of gender on Native American student success," Smith said.

Smith and Metz began studying incoming female Native American students majoring in STEM fields this fall at MSU as well as Northern Arizona University. The researchers will follow the students for a year, identifying effective social and academic support for students majoring in the fields.

Smith said the scientists included NAU with MSU in the study because of the similarities of the two schools in size and academic mission. Also, there are more Indian students at NAU and traditionally they come from different tribes than the students at MSU, which may help researches to uncover any nuances in the data that come from tribal affiliations, she said.

Smith said she hopes the study will lead to greater success for Native American female students in the sciences.

"We expect to make concrete, data-driven recommendations to academic institutions that lead to more equitable learning environments for Native students in the disciplines," Smith said.

Jessi L. Smith (406) 994-5228,