Published November 1, 2018
As with many indigenous communities, Native American students often find contemporary science teaching methods challenging because they conflict with the traditional way these students learn.
Native Americans traditionally gather knowledge through their oral tradition of storytelling, while most academic institutions follow the Western scientific methods. Thus, Native American students often find STEM educational experiences in institutions ranging from middle schools through higher education isolating and inaccessible.
Sameer Honwad, assistant professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction in UB’s Graduate School of Education, is trying to find an answer to this problem. Honwad’s approach is to use podcasts as a catalyst for Native American students to communicate their STEM-related research orally, rather than using Western academic methods, such as written research papers.
“Given that Native Americans have an oral tradition, they are oftentimes hindered by the fact that in Western systems, you write a lot,” he says.
“How can we get Native American students to be interested in science research? We believe if the students can build stories about environmental problems in their community using Western scientific data combined with traditional knowledge, they would be more interested in pursuing science careers.”
Honwad is the principal investigator on a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation for his Voices to Hear (V2H) project in which Native American students will create podcasts to tackle environmental issues. At the same time, these podcasts will build in these students a stronger wisdom and awareness of their ethnic identity, Honwad and his fellow researchers say.
Creating a podcast aligns with the oral traditions of Native American tribes, and also reinforces academic research, Honwad explains, noting that it involves identifying an idea, collecting data, analyzing that data and then having a discussion about it.
These are all elements in writing a research paper, he says, except that a podcast tells a story.
The students’ podcasts will be broadcast over the main tribal radio station of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, so they must be high quality, Honwad says.
“I love podcasts,” he adds. “Two of my favorites are ‘This American Life’ and ‘Radiolab.’ This grant has merged a lot of my passions and interests together.”
Honwad’s research focuses on how best to teach young people to solve environmental problems in their communities. The process of environmental problem-solving requires material to be aligned with the student’s epistemology — his or her way of knowing and thinking.
“Each cultural group has different epistemology,” he says. “For example, I am Indian (Honwad grew up in Mumbai, India), so the way I go about collecting knowledge is very different from people from other parts of the world. Thus, if you want people to learn science, then it is important that we align the science material with their epistemology.
“Given that Native American epistemology is different, the STEM that is presented to them has to be aligned with their ways of knowing and thinking,” Honwad says. “Knowing the processes of how different cultural groups generate knowledge requires researchers to be embedded within those cultural groups for several years. Unless you have a long-term partnership, unless you are embedded in the community, you can’t know how they construct knowledge.”
Honwad, who joined the UB faculty this semester, hopes that his skills in community partnership building can be useful in creating long-term, equitable partnerships with Native American tribes from upstate or Western New York. He is a co-principal investigator on another NSF grant that is bringing together elementary school teachers and cooperative extension science volunteers in New Hampshire in a community-based professional development partnership to improve the educators’ science knowledge and instructional practice.
As a part of the V2H grant, Honwad also plans to build a mentoring model to support retention of Native American college students.
“We are building a mentorship model where undergraduate students — instead of adults — guide the younger students in making podcasts and investigating community problems,” he says.
“Undergraduate students mentoring high school and middle school students will provide a more relatable experience to the younger students. They are closer to undergrads in age, so the middle and high school students could see where they can possibly end up in five years.”
For V2H, Honwad is looking to recruit 10 undergrad students, preferably from the Pacific Northwest, to work directly with researchers. They will be trained to investigate an environmental problem in their community, make podcasts, and mentor middle and high school Native American students.
The researchers are also open to any Western New York Native American students interested in talking part in this project.
“My door is always open,” Honwad says. “I love to collaborate, and the possibility of expanding V2H to Western New York is exciting.
“We are hoping these students in the coming years will be able to assess a problem in their community, investigate it and then make small podcasts about their research,” he says. “This will provide Native American students with an understanding of pathways to a diverse set of career opportunities in STEM-related subjects, while continuing their sacred traditional teachings.”
For more information on the Voices to Hear project, visit the project’s website.