Native American high schoolers get taste of college, STEM fields at CSU institute

Video by Jesse Grace

Nearly 30 Native American students from Denver, Fort Collins and New Mexico got a hands-on taste of college life and possible careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics during the Native American STEM Institute at CSU last week.

The institute, hosted by CSU’s Native American Cultural Center, featured a variety of lively activities — and not just on the main campus. The students spent three days at the CSU Mountain Campus and visited the Foothills Campus and Denver Zoo.

“A lot of these kids have never seen a college campus before,” said Tiffani Kelly, assistant director of the NACC. “They stay in Newsom Hall, get exposed to several STEM fields and interact with some of our college students. CSU students can share their stories about what college is like, and the high school students tend to really listen to them.”

Sixth year

The program, which is free for the students, was launched six years ago as a collaboration with the Denver Public Schools’ Native American Student Support Program.  To date, some 120 students entering 8th through 11th grade have taken part in the program. It has expanded since its inception, and this year includes students from Adams 12 Five Star Schools, two students from Fort Collins High School and four from New Mexico, according to NACC Director Ty Smith. The institute offers interactive exercises in math and science, exposes Native students to engineering concepts, and provides teamwork and leadership opportunities. Five CSU student mentors helped Smith and Kelly run the institute throughout the week.

Starting on June 11, the high schoolers’ time at the CSU Mountain Campus included a ropes course and geocaching, complete with a GPS lesson from Peter Barry of the Colorado State Forest Service. From Sunday to Wednesday, the students learned about forestry, fire science and propulsion (featuring a launching exercise using a one-liter soda bottle). They also took water samples and collected data to understand what constitutes a healthy river during a stream ecology lesson with representatives from the City of Fort Collins.

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On June 14, they traveled to the Foothills Campus to learn about water modeling at CSU’s research facilities, followed by a tour of the main CSU campus as well as a health and wellness session at the Student Recreation Center. The high schoolers received instruction on how to conduct research at the Morgan Library, and enjoyed a networking dinner on campus with many of CSU’s Native faculty and staff as well as representatives from the Office of Admissions, Academic Advancement Center, College of Engineering, Key Communities and Office of the Vice President for Diversity.

“If the students end up enrolling at CSU, they’ll have a solid network and community on campus,” Kelly said.

Other activities

On June 15, the students learned about geographic information systems and how to have fun with surfaces and materials engineering. After an engaging Little Shop of Physics session, the students went back to the Foothills Campus to learn about the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd from CSU reproduction physiologist Jennifer Barfield.

Barfield and CSU graduate students provided a hands-on experiment to allow students to fertilize eggs taken from cows’ ovaries.

“They get to see how life begins and then we take them over to see the bison,” said Barfield, referring to the subsequent visit to see actual bison on the Foothills campus.

As students watched a large screen that revealed an oocyte, an immature egg, taken from one of the ovaries, one student said, “That’s gross.” Barfield laughed and said, “That’s amazing.”

They programmed robots during a June 16 session on robotics, and the next day at the Denver Zoo, the high schoolers got a behind-the-scenes tour with conservation biologists and learned about zoo internships, volunteer opportunities and research. Finally, in a concluding session at the Denver Zoo attended by their parents and family members, the students delivered group poster presentations on how what they learned during the institute applies to their own tribal communities.

In addition to the NACC, DPS and Adams 12, the institute collaborates with Diversity Programs in Engineering in the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering.