How two students inspire young Native Americans through science


Wong, of Purcellville, is a fourth year student studying environmental science and biology. She is interested in the ecological part of the program. Wong continued Eisenfelder’s original research by examining various plant species that grew back in the reserve.

“A big part of our project is to identify the traditional Native American herbal medicines that we are seeing coming back because of the positive effects of bison grazing,” Wong said. “These are plants that have not been seen for generations or have become scarce in recent generations due to external Western forces like the pharmaceutical companies that harvest them.”

The young Native American students were delighted to learn more about these plants and their properties.

“Everyone is interested in protecting their environment, and native plants are very important to the community. Now these kids understand even better how bison are integral to maintaining a healthy prairie, ”said Wong.

In recent years, the partnership has gone beyond the ecological component to include comprehensive lesson plans on foundational academic skills.

“Ultimately, the goal of the program is for students to learn environmental science through a native lens,” Kruse said. “Maelee Hearington, another AVU student, and I wrote the program to focus on science, social activism and social justice. We also provide additional resources such as binders, markers, easels and notebooks.

The program offers hands-on experience to a small group of students.

“Usually we work closely with around 10 to 15 students for two weeks,” she said. “We sit outside all day and the course material is based on a scientific project or theme, such as water quality or the scientific method. ”

As the pandemic raged in the summer of 2020, Kruse and Wong knew they couldn’t teach the camp in person.

“When COVID hit and we couldn’t go to South Dakota, we made our part of the program virtual,” Kruse said. “The students were still able to meet on the Lake Traverse reserve. In fact, they ended up camping on the property of our community partner Dusty, and we converted the program into a week.

The changes resulted in unforeseen benefits.

“We ended up putting in guest speakers because we thought, ‘Let’s explore the power of Zoom.’ In one session, a law professor spoke about water laws and how Environmental Protection Agency laws apply to native reserves, ”Kruse said.

Native American students also had the option of camping with each other, which created a closer bond between the group.

“Normally in the evening, in previous years, the students would go home, but now they are camping together. and use that time to engage in various cultural topics and discussions, ”she said.

At the height of the pandemic, members of the reserve were using plants grown from bison grazing to keep their population healthy.

“Dusty, our community partner, used plants found in the meadow to treat fever and cough from COVID-19, and she said it was actually a real success as the reservation was hit very hard by the pandemic, ”Wong said.

In August, Wong had the opportunity to work in person with the students after going virtual last summer.

“It was amazing to return to Sisseton after a year on Zoom. It was nice to see the children who started this project with us growing up and building on the interests they developed during the program, ”she said. “I feel really close to the people and students we work with, and finally reuniting with them was the perfect way for me to end my time on the project. I hope to see some of them come to UVA.

In recent years, Native American students have visited UVA, part of the program Kruse and Wong hope to re-enter.

“We usually take a trip to UVA, where they see Grounds, and several of the kids have told me that they either want to come to UVA or a college like this,” Wong said. “This is our first year of graduating age children, and I have certainly seen an increase in the number of them applying or considering applying to college.”

Kruse and Wong said they hope the effects of the program will extend into the adult lives of these students.

“We want to teach and inspire students to take charge of their intellectual curiosity,” Wong said. “We want students to believe that there is a place for young Native Americans to learn and engage in science education, and then can return to the tribe. This could manifest itself in a number of ways, whether it’s teaching it, engaging in research, or even working with the EPA. “


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