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Summer math and science collaboration educates, delights White Earth Nation students

Two children build bridge with spaghetti and marshmallows
Photo: Mike McCarthy, Center for Transportation Studies
Fourth- through eighth-graders participating in the White Earth Indian Reservation Summer Academy of Math and Science explain it best: Asked how the experience differs from school, popular responses were “funner,” “shorter and funner,” and “a lot funner.”

“You learn a lot, but you don’t know you are learning,” explained another student.

University of Minnesota Extension and the reservation began the cooperative effort 18 years ago when members of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe challenged the University to help engage struggling students in math and science.

Science education has improved considerably since Extension teamed up with White Earth representatives and the local Circle of Life School to produce a three-week hands-on, outdoor-focused summer academy teaching students how math, science and engineering are part of their daily lives. The program later expanded to include students from the Naytahwaush Community Charter School, Pine Point and Mahnomen Public Schools.

"The collaboration succeeds because it draws on the strength of relationships with elders and teachers to connect the curriculum to traditional Ojibwe practices, language and values," says Deb Zak, Extension northwest regional director. Youth participated in lessons ranging from water topics (how to tell the age of a fish, how water moves, lake organisms) to pollinators, forestry and fire safety.

Asked what larger lessons were learned, several students mentioned the importance of teamwork. “Work together and never give up,” said one student. “Help others,” said others. “That math and science are real cool,” added another.
Girl driving cart around cones in gym
Photo: Mike McCarthy, Center for Transportation Studies

In June, a new collaborator, the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies, Roadway Safety Institute, taught about transportation engineering and the dangers of distracted driving. They put students behind the wheel of pedal carts in a lesson co-taught by Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths staff.

“Just knowing how high the [roadway] death rate is in our reservation communities…anything we can incorporate into our curriculum to try and keep our young people safe is a very worthwhile part of the program,” Zak explained in an article for the Center for Transportation Studies’ CTS Catalyst publication.

Zak expects the experience to keep growing and responding to what excites kids about learning. Students provided suggestions when asked what they would like to do in future years. “I would like to see or learn about frogs,” said one student, while another simply suggested, “Have a longer camp.”

Those wishing to make a gift of support to the White Earth Academy of Math and Science may give online or contact Jane Johnson.

Funders and collaborators for the 2016 program included: White Earth Nation; University of Minnesota Extension; University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies; University of Minnesota – Crookston; American Indian higher Education Consortium; White Earth Tribal and Community College; Circle of Life Academy; Pine Point School; University of Toledo.
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