Newswise — A greater understanding of what engineers do and how their skills can help reservation communities and tribes may help encourage Native American students to pursue the profession, according to a study done by South Dakota State University researchers. However, that information must be shared with the families, tribal and community leaders and school teachers who educate and support these students.

Civil engineering professor and assistant department head Suzette Burckhard and research associate Joanita Kant, a biologist, are working on the National Science Foundation’s Pre-Engineering Education Collaborative, designed to attract Native Americans to engineering. Richie Meyers, director of tribal relations/outreach and coordinator of American Indian studies is also part of the SDSU team.

The project also brings together researchers from the Oglala Lakota College, which has a pre-engineering program, and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

“If I don’t know what an engineer does, why would I ever choose that as a career?” Kant said. For three summers, she did service-learning projects with the Pine Ridge Reservation students when former civil engineering department head Bruce Berdanier led the SDSU project. Recruiting student participants was challenging, Kant recalled.

Consequently, the researchers decided they needed to figure out how to meet the communities’ needs, explained Burckhard, who took over for Berdanier in 2014. They set out to answer the question, “What is the actual view of engineering?” To do this, they worked with Meyers and Wiyaka His Horse Is Thunder, a graduate student in counseling and human resource development and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She and four undergraduate Native American interns asked 107 college-age South Dakota Native Americans with some education beyond high school why they did not choose engineering. “A lot of the students said they were not interested in engineering because they wanted to do something that would help rebuild their communities,” said His Horse is Thunder. In the qualitative study, only 48 percent of the interviewees said they had been exposed to engineering. “They have not made that connection—they don’t have any role models in the communities who are engineers,” Burckhard pointed out. Interviewees cited economic and social issues as priorities and named nurses, lawyers and psychologists as more appropriate professions to find solutions to these problems. “One respondent said, ‘I considered it for 15 minutes in seventh grade, then my mother told me to be a nurse,’” Kant said. “She saw the sick people at the clinic.”

To increase community awareness, the participants suggested incorporating engineering into the public school curriculum, but also cited high turnover rates among math and science teachers as obstacles. Many also saw math as a barrier to becoming an engineer, Kant pointed out.

Based on the study, the researchers decided that connecting with culture was essential to making careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics relevant to students and community stakeholders. To do this, they are recruiting 30 girls to participate in a pilot program at Flandreau Indian School that will use culturally relevant plants, such as chokecherries, plums and wild roses, to inspire them to pursue these types of careers.

The researchers have secured partial funding from the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium and are seeking additional support from Women and Giving at SDSU for the pilot project.

About South Dakota State UniversityFounded in 1881, South Dakota State University is the state’s Morrill Act land-grant institution as well as its largest, most comprehensive school of higher education. SDSU confers degrees from eight different colleges representing more than 175 majors, minors and specializations. The institution also offers 32 master’s degree programs, 15 Ph.D. and two professional programs. The work of the university is carried out on a residential campus in Brookings, at sites in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City, and through Cooperative Extension offices and Agricultural Experiment Station research sites across the state.