Newswise — (FARGO, ND) - The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded $10 million to the Cultivating Indigenous Research Communities for Leadership in Education and STEM (CIRCLES) Alliance, a six-state collaborative, to address the under-representation of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines and in the workforce.

The award begins on August 15 and the North Dakota EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) State Office will receive $2.08 million of the total funding.

Formed in 2020 with support from NSF’s EPSCoR and INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) programs, the CIRCLES Alliance is poised with this new funding to serve students and educators at the kindergarten through undergraduate levels.

The Alliance builds on existing partnerships with tribal communities in six EPSCoR jurisdictions in the western half of the U.S. (Idaho, Montana [lead institution for this collaborative research], New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming).

Aaron Thomas, Director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Montana (UM), noted that the goal of the CIRCLES Alliance is encouraging “AI/AN students to identify academically and culturally with being a Native scientist, technician, engineer, or mathematician so that more AI/AN students will enter and persist in STEM-related fields and workforce.” Thomas is the lead Principal Investigator of this collaborative effort.  

“The CIRCLES Alliance has worked for the past two years to create a strong and mutually respectful and collaborative environment amongst the six states and between the Alliance and our tribal community partners. While we are just beginning, we are excited to continue work with our tribal community partners on formal and informal activities framed around a holistic experiential and Indigenous-based approach to STEM to encourage more AI/AN students to think about STEM careers,” noted Kelly A. Rusch, Executive Director of the ND EPSCoR State Office, Associate Chair and Professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at North Dakota State University (NDSU), and the NSF INCLUDES Principal Investigator for ND EPSCoR and NDSU.

Through the CIRCLES Alliance, the ND EPSCoR State Office in conjunction with Ryan Summers, Assistant Professor of Science Education at the University of North Dakota, will work collaboratively to build on strong, existing partnerships with tribal communities and create a network for developing and disseminating STEM educational resources, as well as implementing longitudinal programming, and mentorship and teacher preparation, to support AI/AN student success.

The ND EPSCoR State Office will also serve as the administrative backbone for this six-state alliance.

Ultimately, the project aims to support tribal communities in producing a STEM-ready workforce to meet their communities’ unique economic needs. The ND EPSCoR State Office has long-standing collaborations and programs with the state’s tribal communities. “We are well positioned to use our current NATURE (Nurturing American Tribal Undergraduate Research and Education) programming as a springboard to re-think and dialogue with our tribal community partners on how we engage and encourage AI/AN students to pursue STEM in ways that are grounded in each student’s cultural identity,” said Rusch.

Ultimately, through research and collaboration with tribal communities, the CIRCLES Alliance aims to inform educational institutions and the NSF in AI/AN cultural understanding and humility and to shift approaches toward AI/AN education.

Funding for the award comes from the NSF’s INCLUDES community.

About the ND EPSCoR State Office

The ND EPSCoR State Office was created by the North Dakota University System (NDUS) in late 2017 and is funded via appropriations to the NDUS by the North Dakota Legislative Assembly. The State Office is responsible for developing, implementing, funding, and managing several statewide programs and activities and administering several federal awards in support of its mission to broaden and diversify North Dakota's science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce pathways, support and grow statewide STEM research capacity and competitiveness, and inform and communicate science to North Dakota stakeholders. For more information, visit

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Award Number (FAIN): 2217344