WSU Faculty Work With Tribes, Local School Districts to Help More Students Succeed in Math, Science Careers

PULLMAN, Wash. — Judy Meuth and Sandy Cooper work in two distinctly different disciplines at Washington State University, but they want the same thing for girls and ethnic minorities — more success stories.

Meuth and Cooper, faculty members in the departments of Women Studies and Mathematics, respectively, are collaborating on a project that will help more girls and ethnic minorities in eastern Washington stay in school and enter science, engineering, technology, math and related careers.

The pair received an $886,505 grant from the National Science Foundation for Promising Reform in Science and Math, which brings together academics, seven school districts and tribes to improve awareness of gender and culture issues that affect learning. Although the project encompasses many cultures, Meuth and Cooper work closely with the Colville Confederated Tribes, 11 Native American tribes that have a shared governance and reservation in northeastern Washington.

Nontribal people fill many top positions in tribal industries today, says Meuth, a lecturer and wildlife biologist. Many Native American students drop out or fail to thrive in school, restricting their career options. Nearly 35 percent of Native American students leave high school in their sophomore year alone.

Many of the Colville Confederated Tribes’ professional positions are scientifically based, Cooper says. The Colville Tribal Enterprises Corp. employs about 2,000 people and does nearly $100 million annually in various businesses and programs, including a sawmill, tree and plant nurseries, grocery stores, a credit union, a fish hatchery, two resorts, a casino, a convalescent center, and child welfare and senior programs.

“They don’t have that many tribal members with the educational background to fill those positions,” says Cooper, an associate professor. “That means policy decisions are often heavily influenced, if not dictated, by the people in these key positions. We want to get more tribal members into those.”

A lack of women and ethnic minorities in math and science fields limits the range of all scientific research, too, Meuth adds. “If a particular population is doing science, they deal with the problems that interest them. If we broaden the field, we get more of a vision of what’s out there.”

“There’s an equity issue, too,” Cooper adds. “These are really exciting, interesting, satisfying fields in terms of the work you do. Everybody should have the opportunity to work in these fields.”

An earlier planning grant from NSF allowed Meuth and Cooper to pull together teachers and administrators from eastern Washington school districts, faculty at WSU and Lewis Clark State College, and tribal members to brainstorm solutions for more than a year. School districts involved include a mix of rural and urban: Pullman, Spokane, Grand Coulee Dam, Inchelium, Omak, Okanogan and Wilbur. Many of these surround the reservation and draw students from the tribes.

The project will begin this fall with planning and preparation, Cooper says. In the fall of 2002, Omak, Pullman and Spokane school districts will be the first to receive the full range of programs, which include workshops tailored to help educators understand gender and cultural issues, stipends for teachers and counselors to attend a summer institute focused on curriculum reform, and a university course for would-be teachers at WSU and LCSC. In the following year, more school districts will begin to participate.

The project involves Colville tribal students in field trips, hands-on projects, community service and career planning and puts long-term reform in the hands of both tribal leaders and school teachers and administrators. The groups will work together with a tribal advisory council to develop and maintain the programs.

“The idea is everyone would learn together — the teachers, the academics and the students. Our goal is the same — kids really succeeding in math and science,” Meuth says.