A youth in science program in Maine combines environmental action with cultural awareness.

Different cultures intersect in a Maine forest

To help boost the number of Native American teens interested in studying science, a program in Maine combines environmental action with cultural awareness.

January 12, 2016

Studying western science doesn’t have to mean giving up your culture and traditions. That’s the message for Native American teens in Maine who are participating in a program that combines environmental action with cultural awareness.

The WaYS (Wabanaki Youth in Science) program is a collaboration involving the University of Maine at Orono, the U.S. Forest Service, Wabanaki tribes, and Native American high school students across the state. Its goal is to help Native American students develop an interest in science and possibly pursue it in college. The program recently received a $10,000 grant through the 2015 Wells Fargo Environmental Solutions for Communities grant program.

John Banks, director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Penobscot Nation (a Wabanaki tribe), explains, “This program combines two worlds in a way that, we hope, helps students understand that a science degree doesn’t mean giving up on their cherished culture and traditions.” He notes that reverence for the land — and minimal intervention — are key to many Native American attitudes, which may conflict with scientific notions.

The Wabanaki high school students are studying invasive plants and ways to restrain them in the Penobscot Experimental Forest in Bradley, Maine.

“This land, before the arrival of European settlers, was home to the tribe,” says Tish Carr, manager for the WaYS program. “So the students are essentially working on their ancestors’ land.”

Tish adds that, by participating in the program, the Native American high school students are more likely to develop an interest in or pursue science in college.

“Wells Fargo believes in being environmentally proactive and helping our customers, communities, and team members become better stewards of the environment,” says Mary Wenzel, head of Environmental Affairs for Wells Fargo. “The environmental solutions grant program helps advance our company’s goal to give $100 million to support environmental nonprofits by 2020.”

A growing need

Science, technology, engineering, and math careers are expected to grow almost twice as much as all other careers over the next decade, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. And although the percentage of minority students enrolled in undergraduate natural resources programs has steadily grown, it has stayed about the same, at about 0.20 percent, among Native American students, according to National Association of University Forest Resources institutions.

“There’s a concern that younger tribal members won’t be ready to fill jobs when some of us older members retire,” John says. “Today, you really need to get a college education in science to best manage our natural resources.”

WaYS Program Manager oversees the work of an intern as they take readings from trees in the Penobscot Experimental Forest.
Using an instrument called a hypsometer to measure tree heights.
Meeting to compare notes on invasive plants.
Measuring the circumference of a tree to help determine its resistance to invasive plants and diseases.
Sharing Wabanaki Native American cultural knowledge about forestry with the interns of the WaYS program.
Pointing out evidence of disease on a tree’s trunk.
WaYS Program Manager Tish Carr (left) oversees the work of intern Kahlan as they take readings from trees in the Penobscot Experimental Forest.
Intern Douglas uses an instrument called a hypsometer to measure tree heights under the supervision of Brian Roth.
Intern Kahlan (left) with Shantel, a WaYS team leader, compare notes on invasive plants.
Intern Sadie measures the circumference of a tree to help determine its resistance to invasive plants and diseases.
Roger Paul (right) shares Wabanaki Native American cultural knowledge about forestry with the interns of the WaYS program.
Roth points out evidence of disease on a tree’s trunk to Steven, a WaYS intern.

Barry Dana, former chief of the Penobscot Nation, works with the program. He says, “The beauty of featuring culture in this program is the students won’t walk away. They’re already vested.”

So far it seems to be working: Today there are 15 percent more Native American students pursuing science at the University of Maine, Tish says, than when the WaYS program began three years ago. She says receiving the Wells Fargo environmental grant will help continue the trend.

Contributors: Jessica Pacek
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