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NAMSS: Recruiting Minorities for STEM Careers

In the mid-1990's Mark Muktoyuk, a native Alaskan, considered pursuing a civil engineering degree at Oregon State University (OSU). He could've explored career opportunities in the field on his own, but most people who go that route end up inadequately informed. Fortunately, Muktoyuk chose to take advantage of the Native Americans in Marine and Space Sciences (NAMSS) Program, a special effort by OSU to recruit and retain underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

He's glad he did. "NAMSS was such a difference maker," he says. "It really helped make my undergraduate experience a successful one."

NAMSS, established at OSU in 1990 mainly for Native Americans, now provides an effective educational support system for African-American, Hispanic, and Asian- American students interested in STEM careers. Since the program's inception, 95% of its undergraduate participants have either completed or are still enrolled in bachelor's degree programs in STEM.

NAMSS undergraduate Darin Taylor (second from left) and OSU researchers investigate hydrothermal vents in Crater Lake, Oregon.

Muktoyuk, now a simulation engineer at Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson, Arizona, says his NAMSS experience enriched him professionally and culturally. His research internships, for example, allowed him to realize he was better suited for a career in applied mathematics than in civil engineering.

Moreover, the program allowed him to assist in an OSU course that combined traditional Native American ecological knowledge with western science and to work with other Natives on science and math programs for Native youth. Because Muktoyuk grew up in a predominately white suburb in Portland, Oregon, these experiences gave him a much needed connection to his culture.

Tackling Diversity Issues

NAMSS was created after Douglas Caldwell, Dean of OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS) at the time, called attention to the low numbers of Native American students in COAS. "It became apparent that it would be great to have a wonderful program at the university for Native students," says NAMSS director Judith Vergun. To make this happen, Caldwell and colleagues examined OSU's Native American recruitment and retention strategy by meeting with members of OSU's American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) chapter: Judith Vergun, Toby Martin, and Robin Slate. Vergun and colleagues explained that many Native Americans didn't see the cultural relevance of studying STEM. Of those Natives who did enter college with the intent of majoring in STEM, many eventually dropped out of college or changed their minds about pursuing STEM careers because they didn't think they could pass the required math courses.

A Multifaceted Approach

NAMSS developed an extensive network of STEM opportunities to inspire and mentor young Native Americans. Vergun, colleagues, and tribal education specialists from the Oregon Indian Coalition for Post Secondary Education made this possible by partnering with state and federal agencies, academic institutions, museums and aquaria, non-government organizations, and the Native tribal community.

Pre-college programs were created to recruit Native youth from around the country to attend OSU and major in STEM subjects. After being accepted into NAMSS, students can do paid research internships, serve as mentors in pre-college science and math programs, participate in community outreach programs, and receive academic tutoring and counseling. Students can also assist in special courses created by NAMSS; these courses are designed to integrate Native knowledge with western science, and are available to all OSU students. The courses serve to enhance OSU's cultural competency by allowing an exchange of knowledge.

NAMSS graduate student Bodie Shaw (front left), OSU plant community ecologist Paul Doescher (front center), NAMSS undergraduate Bridgette Scott (front right), and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation's Culture and Heritage Committee collaborate on a research project in Warm Springs, Oregon.

With all of these resources and opportunities, NAMSS undergraduate participants are equipped to complete their education, determine their career path, and pursue graduate school. But there is a deeper strategy behind this approach: NAMSS wants participating students to find their own connection to the fields they study.

"The theme of our program is to help each individual find out what he or she is most passionate about . . . and help them figure out how to explore that academically," Vergun says. As long as the students fulfill its main requirements--maintaining at least a 3.0 GPA, doing a research internship, giving back to the community, and learning to communicate effectively--NAMSS allows students to select educational opportunities that fit their interests and needs. Any OSU Native American in good academic standing can apply to NAMSS at any time. Those accepted can stay with the program until they complete their degrees.

A Program That Works

The NAMSS approach was so successful in helping Native Americans enter STEM careers during its early years that representatives from local African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American communities requested similar opportunities for these ethnic groups. In response, NAMSS established the Diversity Internship Program (DIP) at OSU in 1995.

NAMSS's success has been undeniable. Last May, the program received a 2004 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. NAMSS and DIP records reveal that through the end of 2003, 95% of the 147 undergraduate participants either had completed or were still seeking bachelor's degrees in STEM fields. Fifty-three percent of the 147 had moved on to graduate school. Moreover, 2352 K-12 students have participated in NAMSS's pre-college and outreach programs; some of these students went on to major in STEM at OSU and participate in NAMSS or DIP.

Kumu Ola undergraduates, Navigation Academy students from Halau Ku Mana Public Charter School, and staff pose with a canoe they built to study marine science and navigation on Kualoa Beach, Oahu, Hawaii.

NAMSS continues to expand, thanks to sponsors like the National Science Foundation, NASA Oregon Space Grant, The Ford Foundation, and The Education Foundation of America. A few years ago, NAMSS extended its support to OSU's Native American graduate students by creating the Pacific Traditional Ecological Knowledge Program. In addition, encouraged by Hawaii's Polynesian Voyaging Society, the University of Hawaii in Manoa hired Vergun to replicate and direct a program like NAMSS. In 2002, UH- Manoa created the Kumu Ola: Source of Knowledge Program in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

Many factors may have contributed to NAMSS's success in bringing in more minorities to STEM, but from Vergun's perspective, the most important ones have been the intensive science training and mentoring that undergraduate participants receive, the mentoring the students themselves provide to younger generations, and the cultural knowledge that the students share with those who mentor them. "Our students feel more secure, learn, and retain more when there's a community of learners surrounding them," Vergun says. "There's no hierarchy; we are a collaborative community of learners."

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

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