New project seeks to boost number of Alaska Natives in STEM fields

A $1.5 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation will fund a five-year pilot project to help American Indian and Alaska Native college students achieve advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM subjects. The goal, ultimately, is to increase the number of Native tenured faculty at colleges and universities.

National Science Foundation program officer Sally O’Connor says the “Lighting the Pathway” project is aimed at full-time college students, undergraduate or graduate, majoring in science, math, computer science, or engineering. She says NSF wants to encourage Native Americans with an aptitude for STEM subjects to reach their full potential.

“There is so much talent in the Native community,” says O’Connor, “and it’s mainly untapped. And hopefully this project will make a little dent into that and bring out the talent so that they can become leaders in our country.”

O’Connor says several factors contribute to the low number of Native Americans with advanced degrees and tenured faculty positions: a lack of role models in STEM, and inadequate academic training, which she says is related to inadequate funding of schools on reservations and in rural areas.

“I mean if we provide them with the same resources we give the best schools in the cities, those students would be well prepared,” said O’Connor. “But the sad fact is, that is not happening.”

Participants will receive a stipend of $2,500 dollars over two years, plus funding to travel to meetings and program events. Each student will be teamed up with a mentor, an expert in the field they’re studying, to set goals and get some training and support to achieve them. The project itself will be evaluated to find out what works and what doesn’t, to help in the design of future programs.

Herb Schroeder is Vice Provost and Founder of the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, or ANSEP, at University of Alaska Anchorage. He says the mentoring is important to get students socially and academically prepared for college. But he says ANSEP starts at an earlier age. This year, it’s working with 868 kids in middle school.

“In our mid school, 83% of the kids finish algebra 1 before they graduate from 8th grade. And the national average for that is 26%,” says Schroeder. “So, then they’re on track in their freshman and high school. They can immediately take math and science courses from university professors that count for university credit and high school credit. And that’s how we’re getting the students hyper prepared.”

Schroeder says students can also apply for scholarships through ANSEP.

“The students, once they arrive at the university, are eligible for scholarship funds. It’s merit based scholarships that are five thousand dollars a year. Plus we connect the students with internships with all of our partner organizations so they can make up the difference that they need to go to school.

And for the students who go to graduate school, ANSEP kicks up the financial support.

“Once they’re in graduate school, we offer stipends for students for masters and PhD students of $30,000 total over the course of their graduate studies,” says Schroeder. “Plus we pay their tuition and connect them with research projects so that they can complete their degree programs.”

To provide that level of support, ANSEP has 70 partners who help support the $7.5 million dollar program. Still, Schroeder hopes ANSEP students will be able to take advantage of the national program. “I’ll certainly encourage my students to apply for some of that funding,” says Schroeder. “Every dollar helps.”

For more information, visit the American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s webpage at

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