This project is a collaborative effort between Northwestern University, TERC, the Menominee Tribal School (MTS) and the American Indian Center of Chicago (AIC). The long-term goal of the proposed project is to improve science learning and school achievement for Native-American children. They begin school with an advanced understanding of biology and superior performance on standardized tests compared to their non-Native peers, but in later years this benefit does not result in high levels of school achievement and biology becomes their worst subject. Understanding why and how this happens is a central purpose of this research. Previous work examined the hypothesis that there is discord between Native-American cultural ways of knowing biology and the cultural ways of knowing in school science and that this discord is at the heart of student disengagement and underachievement. A central feature of the discord was found to be the lack of explicit connections across contexts in which students learn science. The lack of connections is manifest across a range of levels, including content knowledge, practices, values, and relevance to family, community, and society at large. The project is composed of two complementary strands of work aimed at supporting students? navigation between and through the various cultural contexts in which they learn science. One strand consists of design experiments in both in-school and out-of-school settings that will allow the researchers to continue to develop, extend, and refine design principles and related curricular innovations. The second strand consists of a series of small-scale cognitive studies that are intended to support components of the design work. Further, this project will contribute to the growing body of work exploring the deep intellectual resources students from non-dominant backgrounds bring to teaching and learning environments and the ways in which these resources can enhance school science learning. Previous work demonstrates that culturally- and community-based science programs can affect identification with science, motivation to learn science and conceptions of the very nature of science. The proposers of this project are anxious to develop and test the framework further and to implement their design principles in classrooms and after-school programs.

Project Report

Intellectual Merit. The overall purpose of our project was to examine ways of approaching and thinking about the natural world (cultural epistemologies) in the development children’s understandings of scientific practices in general and biology in particular. Our project builds on our earlier work demonstrating cultural differences in conceptions of human/nature relations. For example, European-American children and adults tend to see nature as something apart from people, something to be protected. In contrast, Native-American children and adults see themselves as part of nature and adopt an ecological and relational orientation. We have been using these observations to design culturally-based science curricula for Native-American communities. Our project is a collaborative effort involving the American Indian Center of Chicago, the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, and Northwestern University. Our goal is to contribute to solving the chronic under-representation of Native-Americans in science disciplines. Empirical Findings. At each research site we have developed science units, initially as part of summer science programs but increasingly for use in the Menominee tribal school and in on-going after-school programming. The curricula are available through the American Indian Center of Chicago and we are working on them being available via websites. On a broad level we have found that engaging students in community-based science has dramatic impacts on their engagement and identification with science. For example, Native students show a shift in understanding science as body of facts to memorize and scripted lab experiments to a set of practices in which you learn about and make sense of the world. We see significant changes in students’ identification with and ownership of science as an authentic enterprise for Native people to engage in. Youth also shift from seeing science as something one only learns in school to the idea that one can learn science from many sources including parents, elders and their own observations. We also have observed parallel changes in community members’ and teachers’ thinking about and with science. Importantly these shifts predict long-term differences in participation in STEM more broadly. We have also compared children’s books authored and illustrated by Native-Americans versus those done by Non-Native people. The Native children’s book illustrations differ from the Non-Native ones by using conventions that invite readers into the scene (e.g. providing an "over the shoulder view" and are more likely to show events as "close," and more likely to present multiple perspectives and viewing angles Other studies demonstrate important consequences of these conventions, at least for college students. Our analysis of science textbooks reveals that one popular series uses these sorts of perspective taking conventions and future work will assess the consequences of these devices for school age children. Broader Impacts. An integral component of this research program is its commitment to integrating members of under-represented communities and to building infrastructures that will continue to support their involvement in the research process. Members of Native American communities have increasingly become involved on our project as PIs, research assistants and graduate fellows. There have been striking changes in the project personnel related to their research experiences. Three of the project teachers completed their Master’s degrees in education and one finished a PhD in Anthropology. Another Native scholar associated with our project will complete her PhD in Learning Sciences this year. Another two RAs who had held Associates of Arts degrees for more than a decade have now returned to college to pursue their bachelor’s degrees. Outreach Activities We have held meetings bi-monthly to describe our research and to seek input from parents, other community members, elders and teachers. We also do seminars on our findings with teachers. Articles describing our research activities have appeared at least quarterly in the American Indian Center newsletter and in the Menominee Nation News. One of our Menominee research assistants has created and maintained a project website ( One consequence of these activities is that chapters of AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society) have been formed both in Chicago and on the Menominee reservation. Members of our research team attended the annual meeting of AISES and acted as judges at the science fair. We also have formed a relationship with the Illinois Math and Science Academy to encourage project participants to attend this elite math and science-focused high school. More generally, the word "research" in many Indian communities has had strong negative implications, largely because of a history of exploitation by outside researchers. Our project represents a partnership with tribal institutions and community members in ways that build community capacity and research becomes an asset to community. Further, this project and related ones have been empowering for tribal institutions and have led to a positive appreciation of the role of science and scientific research in community affairs.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL)
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Gregg E. Solomon
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Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin
United States
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