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Indigenous students in STEM

A U researcher is helping develop strategies to increase STEM engagement in Indigenous communities.

The University of Utah is one of five anchor institutions on a project designed to develop strategies to recruit and retain more Indigenous students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The National Science Foundation has awarded a $99,786 planning grant that will allow the research team to develop strategies to recruit and retain more Indigenous students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

The project, titled “Transcending Barriers to Success (TBS),” will address participation challenges for Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Native Pacific Islander (NAAN-NHPI) students. Recent studies estimate the percentage of NAAN-NHPI students who complete a degree in STEM majors is lower than any other minority group. Only 17% of Native American and Indigenous students continue their education after high school (compared to 60% of the U.S. population), and only 7% will complete a bachelor’s degree.

“This is an incredible opportunity for the U to come together to identify how we are currently supporting our Native and Pacific Islander students and to develop a strategic plan for increasing their participation in STEM,” says Hokulani K. Aikau, associate professor in gender studies and ethnic studies as well as co-director of Pacific Islands studies at the U. “Utah has one of the largest per capita populations of Pacific Islanders in the U.S. and with eight federally recognized Native Nations this work has the potential to impact these communities as well transform STEM fields and careers. I’m honored to be a part of this work and to be able to apply what we have learned in developing and expanding the Pacific Islands Studies Initiative at the U to this new project.”

The TBS network strategic planning approach employs four dialogic elements:

  • Talking circles
  • Listening circles
  • Convenings
  • Gatherings with “4” (a sacred number of four directions, seasons, daily stages, life stages and others) as a basis.

The team will use these elements to create a plan with a shared mission, vision and values statements grounded on Indigenous knowledge, values and practices.

The research team is led by principal investigator Amy Shachter of Santa Clara University and supported by co-principal investigators Nasrin Mirsaleh-Kohan of Texas Woman’s University, Marty Matlock of the University of Arkansas, Amy Sprowles of Humboldt State University and Aikau of the U. The project will be anchored within these five institutions and supported by the University of Hawaiʻi and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes with contributions from both two- and four-year institutions.


NSF planning grants are funded by NSF Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (NSF INCLUDES), a comprehensive national initiative to enhance U.S. leadership in discoveries and innovations by focusing on diversity, inclusion and broadening participation in STEM at scale.