Creating Engineering Programs in Tribal Colleges

When Kim Craig, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, entered Fort Berthold Community College (FBCC), a small tribal college in New Town, North Dakota, she planned to study business. But then she took a math class and discovered that she enjoyed doing calculations. This prompted her to consider--briefly--studying engineering rather than business. But Craig was out of luck. FBCC doesn't offer a degree in engineering. Few of the nation's tribal colleges do.

That may be changing. Rosalinda Connelley, Craig's math instructor at FBCC, and collaborators at 10 other tribal colleges have banded together to join the National Science Foundation-sponsored All Nations Alliance for Minority Participation (ANAMP) in order to help Native Americans train for careers in engineering.

A New Strategy

Since its beginning, ANAMP has provided opportunities for Native Americans to study science, technology, engineering, and math. But two years ago, ANAMP representatives asked Houston's Johnson Space Center (JSC) if they could enlist the help of a senior engineer to improve engineering studies in the tribal college system. Lee Snapp, who previously taught engineering at a tribal school, was recruited for the job; Snapp left JSC temporarily to work at Salish Kootenai College, ANAMP's headquarters in Pablo, Montana. Since then, Snapp has hooked up with ten other tribal colleges eager to develop curricula leading to associate and bachelor's degrees in engineering (see text box).

Participating Tribal Colleges

  • Blackfeet Community College, Browning, Montana

  • Chief Dull Knife College, Lame Deer, Montana

  • College of Menominee Nation, Keshena, Wisconsin

  • Crownpoint Institute of Technology, Crownpoint, New Mexico

  • Fort Berthold Community College, New Town, North Dakota

  • Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, Kansas

  • Salish Kootenai College, Pablo, Montana

  • Sitting Bull College, Fort Yates, North Dakota

  • Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, Albuquerque, New Mexico

  • United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, North Dakota

  • White Earth Tribal and Community College, Mahnomen, Minnesota

According to NSF's 2004 Science and Engineering Indicators, only 328 American Indians and Alaska Natives earned bachelor's degrees in engineering in 2000. Although this number is impressively larger than the total in 1977 data (when only 135 degrees were awarded), the number of American Indians and Alaska Natives earning engineering degrees remains abysmal, considering that whites earn about 40,000 engineering bachelor's degrees in any given year. Even compared to other minority groups, indigenous groups do poorly; the same 2000 survey found that Asian/Pacific Islanders received nearly 7,000 degrees, blacks more than 3,000, and Hispanics in excess of 4,000.

Snapp hopes that, working together, eleven tribal community colleges can help balance things out. "One of the things that the tribal colleges can do is help with that representation," says Snapp. "We want to offer all qualified students who wish to have a tribal education the opportunity to go all the way to a bachelor's degree in engineering and still remain within the tribal college system."

The plan is to have the 11 colleges cooperate to develop 11 separate associate degrees in various fields (engineering, material science and engineering, bioengineering, computer technology, engineering technology, and electrical engineering technology) and one accredited bachelor's degree, this one in computer engineering. Some of the associate degree programs will be designed to feed into four-year programs at other tribal colleges or mainstream colleges, where students will transfer in order to finish a bachelor's degree. Other associate programs, like the ones in engineering technology, will prepare students to enter the workforce directly.

Moreover, the 11 tribal colleges intend to include something that many mainstream colleges don't have: culturally relevant coursework. "All tribal colleges have the mission of preserving the language and culture of the tribes ? There is a requirement for a cultural component to all programs [in tribal colleges] and engineering is not an exception," says Snapp.

Progress Through Collaboration

In order to fulfill their mission, the tribal colleges need to secure at least $11 million from federal or private agencies. So far, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sponsored a gathering of representatives from the 11 tribal colleges and another federal agency has provided funding to the National Academy of Engineering to organize an advisory committee of Native American educators, traditional elders, and engineers, along with mainstream engineering educators. Other institutions, including the University of Texas at El Paso, the United States Air Force Academy, and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, are providing professional advice.

The 11 tribal colleges face similar obstacles, according to Fred Norwood, an engineer who is in the process of developing engineering programs at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI). Norwood says the schools will need faculty, lab technicians, and resources such as lab equipment and instructional supplies. They need to get accreditation and find effective ways to recruit students and keep them in the program. According to Snapp, many issues must be taken into account. "Two-year colleges that want to offer bachelor degrees in engineering are stepping into an environment they haven't been in before," he says. "They are unlike a four-year college that understands the business of granting a bachelor's degree. Most of the 34 U.S. tribal colleges are two-year schools," he adds.

But thanks to the collaboration at least some of these problems have solutions. "We're talking about exchanging faculty, sharing curricula online, sharing equipment, exchanging lesson plans ? it's really good," Connelley says. Meanwhile Norwood, who has garnered grants from NSF, the Department of Defense, and the state of New Mexico for SIPI's engineering program, has helped Connelley with the grant-writing process and is willing to help representatives from the other participating tribal schools.

A Hopeful Future

The partnership hopes to have the first phase of the plan--including one bachelor's degree and at least three associate degree programs--operational within the next five years.

Norwood anticipates that graduates of these programs will find work in industry and government agencies but hopes that at least some of them will stay close to home, doing jobs that serve the tribal community. By studying engineering at tribal colleges, he says, "?[students] can develop their talents and begin to see how science can help them within their own tribe."

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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