Native Americans in STEM

with Sarah Echohawk of American Indian Science and Engineering Society

While STEM jobs are projected to grow more than 10% by 2026, Native American and Alaska Native populations remain substantially underrepresented.

Sarah Echohawk, CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, shares how her organization is working to close this gap for Native communities and beyond.

Posted on:

Nov 04, 2019

Hosted by: Sheila Hyland
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Hyland: Positions in science, technology, engineering, and math -- or STEM -- are rapidly growing. By 2020, there will be one million more computing jobs than graduates to fill them. While work in STEM fields increases in demand, some populations such as Native Americans and Alaska Natives remain significantly underrepresented. Hello and welcome to Comcast Newsmakers. I'm Sheila Hyland. Why does this gap in STEM education exist? With me to answer this question and more is Sarah Echohawk. She is CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and, Sarah, welcome to our program.

Echohawk: Thank you, Sheila.

Hyland: I think we have to start with the kids. The Native American kids in school right now, their dropout rate is twice the national average. [Why is this, and what are the challenges that they face in not just getting a STEM education, but in staying in school?

Echohawk: Right. Well, that is absolutely correct. We definitely have a higher dropout rate [than the national average. Primarily our students are located on reservations, rural areas, [and then those that are in urban areas also aren't receiving the kind of education that most students have access to, and specifically in the STEM fields.

Hyland: And why is that? What don't they have access to -- books, teachers?

Echohawk: All of the above. There have been some tremendous efforts to increase the number of teachers in Indian countries to help ensure that our kids are getting a good education, and even beyond that, that we're getting teachers that are actually native, as well, because we know that it's important that Native students are taught by native people so that, as we spoke of earlier, that they have role models.

Hyland: And do they have role models to look up to in the STEM field?

Echohawk: They do in the STEM fields. Absolutely. There are a number of Native Americans who have been successful in STEM fields. One of them is actually on our board. John Herrington, who's Chickasaw, from Oklahoma, was actually the first Native American to do a spacewalk, and as I mentioned, he serves on the board of AISES. So there are those. Mary Ross, who worked for NASA. Many people are familiar with the movie "Hidden Figures" that highlighted the contributions of African-American women, but there were also Native American women that worked in NASA, as well, during that time and made tremendous impact in that field.

Hyland: So there are a lot of role models. There are also a lot of opportunities coming up in the coming years in the STEM field. How do we get the Native Americans in to those those fields? These students, get them to higher learning and out into the workforce? -

Echohawk: Right. Well, it starts early, and we need to be getting to kids a lot earlier, and that's not just with the Native American population, but all populations. We really need to be looking back in elementary school. By the time girls get into middle school, if we haven't engaged them in STEM studies, the likelihood that they're going to go on is almost zero. So we really need to be starting that programming early, getting kids engaged and motivated, particular girls, because girls represent less than 20% -- I should say women -- represent less than 20% of the workforce in computer science and engineering. And so while we see that in colleges, that men are dropping and women are increasing, that is true except for computer science and engineering.

Hyland: And I think it's important to point out, too, Sarah, that this isn't just an issue with the Native American population. This is all across the board, across the country. Pew Research Center says the US placed 38th in math and 24th in science out of 71 countries.

Echohawk: Yes. Hyland: I would probably say you might give that grade a C, D, or maybe lower. -

Echohawk: Absolutely.

Hyland: How do we remain or retain our competitive edge here in this country? -

Echohawk: Right. Well, again, it really starts with education, and again, early on, and putting the funding that is necessary to support STEM education. So again, science, technology, engineering, math -- starting kids early getting them engaged and helping them get into college. And what we find with native students is that they only get half of the math and science classes that they should get by the time they finish high school. So even if they get to college, when they get there, they are not prepared to undertake a STEM major. And that, if then they want to, say, become an engineer or a computer scientist, they're gonna have to take a number of remedial courses, which takes extra time and extra money, both of which most native students don't have. So at that point they opt out of that field, and that happens to a lot of students. And so we're not getting the number of graduates that we need. The number really hasn't changed for us in over 20 years. We're still less than 1% of graduates in the STEM fields.

Hyland: And where does AISES come in? are you helping to solve the problem?

Echohawk: So we work in three areas. We work in the K through 12 space, again providing curriculum and culturally contextualized resources for teachers, parents, and students, trying to get them engaged and involved. At college, a number of internships, scholarships to help them get through college, [and also to get familiar in the workforce. And then once you become a professional continue to support them on with resources and networking so they can build their career.

Hyland: All right. It'll be interesting to see] where we go in the next 5, 10, 15 years with getting more Native American students the STEM fields and getting them to stay in school, as well.

Echohawk: Exactly. Because it will benefit us all.

Hyland: Absolutely. Sarah, where can people get more information about your organization?

Echohawk: Sure. They can certainly go to our website, which is, to find out more about how to support our work.

Hyland: Sarah Echohawk, thank you so much for being our guest today from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I'm Sheila Hyland.

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