NATURE At 25: Fostering Indigenous STEM Education, Cultural Relevance, And Collaboration


“This frosting of the [sunflower] seeds had an effect upon them that we rather esteemed. We made a kind of oily meal from sunflower seed, by pounding them in a corn mortar; but meal made from seed that had been frosted, seemed more oily than that from seed gathered before frost fell. The freezing of the seeds seemed to bring the oil out of the crushed kernels. This was well known to us. Sometimes we took the threshed seed out of doors and let it get frosted, so as to bring out this oiliness.” Maxi'diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman), Hidatsa farmer1

Whether it’s agriculture, astronomy, or medicine, Indigenous peoples are natural scientists and have long practiced science before the term “science” existed. Indigenous cultural traditions and ways of life are at the core of these practices.

As the North Dakota Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (ND EPSCoR) program celebrates the 25th anniversary of its NATURE initiative — a program aimed at promoting STEM among tribal youth in North Dakota — it's a moment not only to commemorate past achievements but also to chart the course for the program's future.

NATURE University Summer Camp participants

What is the NATURE program?

NATURE, which stands for Nurturing American Tribal Undergraduate Research and Education, embodies a vision rooted in Indigenous culture and practices with respect for the natural environment while sparking curiosity and interest in future generations for STEM pathways by blending two worlds.

In one world, Indigenous people live as one with Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) and thrive on the ancestral knowledge of various sciences passed on throughout centuries through oral and hands-on teachings. The other world advances research and STEM pathways with today’s knowledge, technologies, and needs. Through an Indigenous lens, these worlds are one in the same.

NATURE beginnings

In 1999, what began as an informal collaboration between a leader from a Tribal College and University (TCU) in North Dakota and a professor at North Dakota State University (NDSU) — supported by a single five-year grant from the Office of Naval Research— has expanded to encompass multiple universities and all of the TCUs in North Dakota. The initial goal of the program was to create better opportunities in STEM for tribal communities’ students and colleges in North Dakota.

Each TCU is culturally distinct, preserving the ancestral history and knowledge of the communities they serve. Indigenous students and faculty have strong connections to the land, which is the basis of their identity and their connection to their ancestors. The lands hold their medicines and serve as their pharmacy.

This wealth of ecological knowledge and the unique practices and perspectives of Indigenous faculty and students make TCUs a vital part of the ND STEM and research ecosystem. The deep connections between TCUs and their communities are integral to the success of the NATURE program.

From its inception, the program has been dedicated to fostering connections between Native peoples' strong ties to nature and their pursuit of knowledge in STEM fields. As Sheridan McNeil (Dakota name Oyate Ohowicada Win “Respects the People Woman”), Director of Tribal Partnerships at ND EPSCoR, notes, "The impact it has on tribal communities in terms of providing access and opportunities in STEM and furthering STEM-related careers and education is immense. We have students from our tribal communities participating in the program and continuing on STEM pathways and careers to become faculty members at tribal colleges, become employed by their tribes, or go on to have successful careers in mainstream organizations. This is so powerful because our tribal citizens and students see one of their own in these roles.”

NATURE programs

Three programs currently live under the NATURE umbrella: Sunday Academy, Tribal College Summer Camps, and University Summer Camp.

Sunday Academy

Sunday Academy is a hands-on STEM experience for middle and high school students. The program is held throughout the academic year at the tribal colleges. Each tribal college hosts their local middle and high school students for several hours on Sundays to do STEM activities.

Britt Heidinger, Sunday Academy Coordinator, says, “The NATURE Sunday Academy program is such an impactful program. It continues to be such an amazing success because of the support and dedication of the tribal college site coordinators and the excellent and actively engaged students and I feel really fortunate to get to participate in this program.”

Tribal College Summer Camps

The Tribal College Summer Camp is a one- to two-week STEM immersion camp held at the tribal colleges. Each tribal college hosts their local middle and high school students. Students engage with local tribal elders, learn about research, and engage in hands-on STEM activities.

University Summer Camp

University Summer Camp is a two-week camp held at both North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota which hosts tribal college students who are 18 years of age or older. Students explore research topics, participate in hands-on STEM activities, and learn about campus life. Students are encouraged to think about how they can apply the STEM learning experiences to their academic paths and home communities. Research areas in this year’s camp included programming drones, bio-sciences, and social/behavioral sciences.

NATURE University Summer Camp participants

Impacts and outcomes

Thousands of Indigenous North Dakotans have participated in NATURE programs over the past 25 years. Between 2020 and 2023 alone, NATURE Sunday Academy lessons were provided to 909 participants, and 226 students participated in TCU Summer Camps.

According to Mafany Mongoh, ag/science faculty and TCU NATURE Coordinator from Sitting Bull College, “NATURE programs play an important role in the community as the primary platform for STEM advocacy and understanding. With the limited number of STEM opportunities in K12 schools and the community at large, we see the NATURE programs as main access points for young minds in the community. These programs have tangible and palpable impacts as well. After more than two decades of NATURE, the program has seen multiple generations from the same household go through the programs. It is worth noting that no youth outreach or educational program on Standing Rock reservation has had sustainability and longevity as NATURE in the community. The program has truly been impactful in that it provides something for community youths to focus on, especially during the summer months. And, it is an important economic source for the youth in the community given the lack of employment opportunities for them. NATURE is serving as a main tool through which young people in the community can connect modern ways and ideas to who they are culturally and traditionally. “

“NATURE has allowed us to provide STEM activities like Sunday Academy and summer culture camps, where the students camp at the earth lodges and participate in STEM presented through the lens of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara culture,” says Dr. Kerry Hartman, academic dean/science faculty and TCU NATURE Coordinator at Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College. “Through the summer camps and Sunday Academy students have gained friendships and had fun while learning about science. NATURE has also provided our students with intriguing research opportunities.”

NATURE not only exposes students to cutting-edge research but also empowers them to envision themselves as future leaders in STEM. “NATURE has provided excellent STEM lessons to bright young minds in many different settings, and is a fun way to introduce students to STEM concepts. Students often comment that they really want to attend college after lessons,” notes Dr. Brent Voels, science faculty and TCU NATURE Coordinator at Cankdeska Cikana Community College.

As McNeil observes, "It's important for students to see others in tribal communities doing this kind of work. Representation matters. ‘If I can see them, I can be them’ is so important in our tribal communities to inspire the next generations. Growing up on Standing Rock and as a tribal college graduate myself, I know first-hand how important this is and how it has positively affected my family. My son participated in the NATURE program, and he is now working in a STEM field. I don’t know that he would have gone down the path he did if it weren’t for the seeds planted in NATURE.”

Collaboration and partnerships

Central to NATURE's success has been the enduring partnerships it has forged with TCUs, mainstream academic institutions, and funding entities like the National Science Foundation EPSCoR Program and the North Dakota legislature. Current funding is provided by the State of North Dakota and an NSF EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement Program Track-1 (RII Track-1) Cooperative Agreement Award OIA #1946202 titled ND-ACES: New Discoveries in the Advanced Interface of Computation, Engineering, and Science.

These partnerships have provided a platform for collaborative research, educational outreach, and cultural exchange, enabling participants to explore STEM topics from both Indigenous and Western perspectives.

McNeil believes an important part of collaboration starts with communication. The tribal students can learn a lot about the research and subject matters, and their university counterparts have the opportunity to learn about Native cultures and communities. “It’s not just pushing through the paperwork. True partnerships require taking some time, and building trust,” explains McNeil.

NDSU Professor and Summer Camp Coordinator Giancarlo López-Martínez stresses the importance of true collaboration and empowering students to drive their own research agendas. He highlights the shift from simply bringing tribal students to mainstream institutions to providing them with the tools and resources to conduct research within their own communities. Now, the TCUs choose the research they’re interested in. “We want them to learn what they want to learn, not just what we want to teach them,” he explains. “Bringing them here to play with the fancy equipment we have here that they do not have, doesn’t help them much. They need to be able to continue the research where they are. They need to be able to work with their local faculty.”

The future of NATURE

As NATURE looks toward its next quarter century, the program is recentering the concept of “cultural relevance.” By integrating culturally relevant, community-focused concepts into STEM education and research, NATURE aims to empower Indigenous students to consider research topics in their own backyards.

NATURE’s goal is not to recruit Indigenous students to NDSU or UND but rather to open the doors to the possibilities of a future in STEM, whatever and wherever that may be. “Just talking about STEM isn’t enough,” says McNeil. “Because not everyone knows they may have an interest, but when you present the cultural relevance, that’s when STEM becomes understood and appealing for many. When students see how they can apply what they have learned in their own communities, that’s what we hope sticks.”

López-Martinez believes the best science happens when you continually add different people from different backgrounds. “Every time I work with somebody new, they add to it. It’s like my missing piece that I didn’t even know I was missing.” He adds: “The moment this person comes into my lab and we start working on something, that person for me, that’s one plus one equals three. It doesn’t equal two because now we’ve grown. I love that.” And that addition of new ideas and fresh thinking to science research ultimately benefits us all.

As McNeil explains, “This is not just about what mainstream universities can provide to tribal communities. We are coming into these collaborations as true partnerships. Our mainstream universities can learn a lot from our cultures, our TCUs, and the ancestral knowledge we carry regarding science and research. We, as Indigenous people, have existed on these lands and taken care of Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) for hundreds of years, and we have a lot to offer and bring to the table.

“As we move into our next 25 years, we are emphasizing true partnerships in which every voice is heard, and cultural relevance is integrated into every program we work on.”

1From: Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden Recounted by Maxi'diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman) of the Hidatsa Indian Tribe (ca.1839-1932) Originally published as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation by Gilbert Livingstone Wilson(1868-1930). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1917. (Ph. D. Thesis)