UArizona Project to Support Native American Students in STEAM Fields

Forbes Building entrance

The Forbes Building houses many programs of the the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The University of Arizona is partnering with Diné College – a public tribal college in northern Arizona – on a project that aims to provide Native American students with skills, knowledge and confidence to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering, agriculture and math fields.

Increasing inclusiveness in the science and technology workforce is a national priority. However, the rate of Native American students who graduate with STEAM degrees remains less than half that of white students and also falls below other underrepresented minority groups, said UArizona Assistant Vice Provost for Native American Initiatives Karen Francis-Begay, who is one of the principal investigators on the project.

The project, "Advancing Postsecondary Attainment and Research in STEAM for Tribal Students," aims to increase the number of Native American students in STEAM fields through outreach, mentoring and enhanced support for transfer students. It is funded by a four-year, $284,096 New Beginnings grant awarded to UArizona by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. New Beginnings grants are awarded to land-grant colleges and universities to provide support specifically for tribal students.

"At the University of Arizona, we are deeply committed to supporting Native American students in their academic and career goals," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "It is critical that our students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, agriculture and mathematics have the support and resources they need to successfully complete their studies and that they know we are behind them as they seek to enter the workforce and make a difference in their communities. This project will help ensure that the right tools are available."

UArizona is working with Diné College, which serves more than 1,300 students on the Navajo Nation and offers associate degrees, bachelor's degrees and certificates. Like UArizona, Diné College is a land-grant institution.

"This grant strengthens the University of Arizona's ongoing partnerships with Diné College, the first tribal college in the United States," said Francis-Begay, whose co-principal investigators on the project are Kimberly Sierra-Cajas, UArizona director of undergraduate research and inquiry and founding director of the Arizona's Science, Engineering and Math Scholars Program, and Diné College collaborators Demetra Skaltsas and Benita Litson.

"Our mutual goal is to support Native American students in the STEAM fields, providing them with a holistic and intentional support to further their studies. The University of Arizona continues to be a leading institution in the United States to graduate a significant number of Native Americans with master's and Ph.D.s in STEAM," Francis-Begay said.

The project has four primary goals:

  • Create clear and culturally responsive pathways for Native American STEAM students transferring from Diné College to UArizona.
  • Create a welcoming environment at UArizona for Native American STEAM students through mentoring from STEAM students and faculty.
  • Build a learning community at UArizona and Diné College that provides Native American STEAM students opportunities for research, coursework support and hands-on learning opportunities.
  • Provide outreach to Diné College students, community members and tribal high school students through Cooperative Extension and panels with graduate students in STEAM fields.  

"Participants are developing a bridged learning community with graduate student mentors and our College of Agriculture and Life Sciences ASEMS staff who will engage through an inclusive and culturally responsive mindset," Sierra-Cajas said. "As student scholars will have the opportunity to participate in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium and will be incorporated into the ASEM Scholars Program, they will already have a connection to community and a sense of belonging upon transferring to UArizona."

The number of students who transfer to UArizona from Diné College has been historically low, at five or fewer for the last several years, Francis-Begay said, and few of those students have been in STEAM fields. In addition, Native American students who transfer to UArizona from two-year colleges leave STEAM majors at a higher rate than their nontribal peers, with 12 of 19 of those transfer students leaving STEAM majors or the university altogether by their third year, Francis-Begay said.

Increasing the number of Native American students in STEAM is especially critical as many tribal nations work to overcome health, climate and environmental disparities, Francis-Begay said. The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on a number of challenges facing tribal communities, including food scarcity, lack of water, limited internet and ill-equipped health care centers. Native American students who complete degrees in STEAM fields would have the capacity and support to help address some of these critical issues in their home communities, Francis-Begay said.

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