Program helps American Indian engineers

By Dave Kolpack
Fargo, North Dakota (AP) September 2010

Supporters of a new program that aims to recruit American Indian students to become engineers are hoping some of them will return home to help their communities.

North Dakota and South Dakota are taking part in the five-year program funded by a $4.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation. It allows students to begin classes at tribal colleges and then transfer to four-year schools to earn their degrees.

The idea is to keep students interested in finishing their studies.

“Every small town wants to be able to bring back their young professionals,” said Stacy Phelps, the chief executive officer of the American Indian Institute for Innovation in Rapid City, S.D.

The initiative targets some areas where poverty, substance abuse, poor school facilities and other problems have caused many students to lose hope of obtaining a college degree. Even the top students have had trouble adapting to long-distance education.

Bob Pieri, tribal college partnership coordinator at North Dakota State University, said recruiters from prestigious engineering schools on the East and West Coast have for years attempted to recruit students from the reservation. It hasn’t worked, he said.

“The way it was approached is that once the student was there, they said, ‘OK, you’ve left the reservation, now leave all of that behind you and become an engineer,’“ Pieri said. “The real fact of the matter is they actually bring more to the table if they bring the background with them.”

Students should feel they have the choice to return to the reservation or seek employment elsewhere, Pieri said.

Brady Falcon, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and a mechanical engineering student at NDSU, said he hopes to get a job that will allow him to travel the world. He also would like to use his skills to help the tribe.

“You have to remember where you came from,” Falcon said. “If speaking at the college and telling people that they can do this and they can succeed in engineering and sciences, I would love to do that.”

One aspect of the program will allow pre-engineering students at Oglala Lakota College to work alongside engineering students from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology on actual projects on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Program coordinators say that should provide real world experience for the pre-engineering students.

It should also benefit the non-American Indian students, said Carter Kerk, engineering professor at the School of Mines and Technology.

“It’s a great experience for them to get out to the reservation to see what some of the challenges are and work with the tribal college and the tribal college students,” Kerk said.

Phelps, an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, earned a mechanical engineering degree from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in 1996. He has since been involved in several American Indian education programs.

Phelps said he was one of only a handful of his high school classmates to attend college.

“We really try to show kids how they can be catalysts and make change in their community in a positive direction, versus saying this is an export game and you’ve got to move far, far away,” Phelps said. “The minute you do that, you tell students your family’s not important, your culture’s not important and everything you grew up with is not important.”

Kerk and Phelps designed a program at the School of Mines and Technology known as Tiospaye – a Lakota word that translates to “extended family” – to promote engineering and science among American Indian students. It has more than 30 students.

“Our numbers aren’t huge, but they’re growing,” Kerk said. “This new grant will help build that pipeline at the tribal college level.”