University of Minnesota Receives $75,000 Seed Grant to Partner with Tribal Colleges to Transform STEM Education for Indigenous Students

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May 14, 2024

An ambitious new planning project aims to radically remake the role of predominantly white institutions in STEM graduate education by centering Tribal Colleges and Universities in tribal land- and self-determination-based science training.

The Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota is pleased to announce that the Spencer Foundation has awarded $75,000 in funding to launch the research planning stages of a large-scale project that aims to transform STEM graduate education training with Tribal College and University (TCU) faculty.

One of approximately 450 applications, this joint U of M and American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) project has been awarded a Spencer Foundation Vision Grant. The twelve-month project, “Enhancing Collaborative Research Toward Prospects of STEM Tribal College Graduate Students” convenes thirteen TCUs in the Midwest, their leadership, and key American Indian faculty. The project will look to TCUs as sites of empowerment for American Indian faculty and students and set the stage for transformative higher education systems change, galvanizing the University in the work of science education and training that serves tribal self-determination. 

“This new project deepens the Institute for Advanced Study’s commitment to Tribal Nations by supporting Tribal Colleges and Universities and their efforts to change the way we think about working with  Native graduate students in STEM fields,” said Bianet Castellanos, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study and project faculty team co-leader. “We are excited to support this important endeavor.”

Data shows that, over the last decade, the number of American Indian/Alaska Native, and Pacific Islander students earning STEM graduate degrees has declined. The majority of these degrees are conceived and administered by predominantly white institutions, like the University of Minnesota. The project’s interdisciplinary team plans to challenge the University’s role as primary science gatekeeper, as well as its complicity in STEM graduate disparities. With these concerns at the forefront of their research, the project team will center relationship-building, repair, and self-determination in all their work.

“Mainstream graduate education assumes that they are providing knowledge that TCU faculty don’t have, but we will work from a space to ensure that whatever knowledge that is to be offered within a graduate degree will add value to the Indigenous knowledge that is already thriving at the tribal colleges” said Darius Taylor, Director of Equity, Education Innovation & Research at AIHEC.

“This project can create opportunities for marginalized and underrepresented Native students, specifically in STEM programs,” said Steve Smith, project collaborator and doctoral student in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences. A member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Smith served as a STEM instructor at Leech Lake Tribal College for twelve years before pursuing a degree in Conservation Science at the University of Minnesota. “Well equipped and educated Native people are vital to issues of tribal sovereignty—the future of tribal nations rests with tribal people themselves.”

The initiative is co-led by Elizabeth Sumida Huaman, a professor of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development in the College of Education and Human Development and Darius Taylor of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, alongside an interdisciplinary team of faculty in the natural/physical and social sciences at the University of Minnesota and leadership at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. The project will be administratively housed in the University’s Institute for Advanced Study, a systemwide University hub for interdisciplinary collaboration reporting to the executive vice president and provost. 


Project Team

Co-PIs (in alphabetical order)

Current Collaborators (in alphabetical order)

  • Karen Brown, Director, Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change
  • William L. Freeman, American Indian Higher Education Consortium Institutional Review Board, Northwest Indian College
  • Stephen J. Smith, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences







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