When you think of the word “scientist,” what images come to mind?
Does your mental picture look like this: a white male wearing goggles and a lab coat sporting a head of crazy disheveled hair? Well, you aren’t alone. When Wendy Smythe enters a classroom in Hydaburg, she opens with that same question.
“We get those same terms every time and then I say, ‘Well, look at me, I’m a scientist.'”
Smythe looks nothing like Einstein. She is green-eyed, blond-haired and Haida. She sings, dances and harvests berries. She also spends countless hours in the lab and in the field studying microorganisms as a post-doctorate fellow at Michigan State. Although she lives more than 2,300 miles from Prince of Wales Island, she still considers Hydaburg her home.
Smythe is a scientist, and so are Joseph Hilaire, Taylor Natkong and Chavonne Guthrie -the three students from Hydaburg who accompanied Smythe and her team of mentors to the 2015 American Indian Science and Engineering Conference last month in Phoenix, Arizona. The mission of the conference is to “increase the representation of American Indians and Alaskan Natives in engineering, sciences and other related technology disciplines.”
I spoke with Smythe, Hilaire and former student Melanie Kadake to understand the conference’s significance for Hydaburg. As it turns out, the conference is only one part of an extensive outreach program Smythe began in 2008 to break down the walls of Western science, to make science meaningful for her home community, and to inspire a new generation of empowered leaders.
Since its inception, the Hydaburg Geoscience Education Program has celebrated many successes. To start, let’s dive into last week’s conference.
The American Indian Science and Engineering Conference
The AISES conference brings together American Indian and Alaskan Native high school and college students from across the country to focus on educational, professional and workforce development in science, technology, engineering and math. Nearly 2,000 participants collaborate over three days while listening to speakers, presenting scientific research and meeting with college and industry recruiters.
The conference specifically caters to the challenges American Indian and Alaskan Natives often face.
“When I first put this program in Hydaburg together, I tried to incorporate every challenge that I had when I left,” Smythe said.”So when you leave a small community and you know everybody and you go to college in Portland or somewhere else, it’s overwhelming and it’s terrifying. So I support AISES because it gives students a chance to leave and go to a conference that’s maybe three or four times the population of where they live. They get to see what it’s like. Then, they go home and they get to think about it – with the hope being that when they do go off to college, they are prepared to handle it.”
Kadake is one of Smythe’s first mentees. She was a sophomore when Smythe first invited her out to collect scientific samples. Seven years later, Kadake is a scientist herself. As an environmental planner for the tribe, Hydaburg Cooperative Association, she spends her summers monitoring important salmon subsistence streams for her community. As a part of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, Kadake’s expertise and insight are valued by other tribes and organizations across the region who share her vision for resilient communities and a resilient region. Kadake keeps Hydaburg’s science program running day to day and has participated in six AISES conferences. One of the most important take-homes for her is the feeling of solidarity.
“I appreciate seeing all the different Natives there pursuing their careers in sciences engineering and math, just knowing how many people there are and knowing that I’m not alone in wanting to pursue the dream I have, that’s important,” she said.
Hilaire is a high school senior who presented last week in his second AISES conference. For him, the conference is about confidence. For four hours, students stand by their research posters and present them to a seemingly endless rotation of interested strangers.
“Before I had presented my research project last year, I had no experience in public speaking at all,” Hilaire said. “As more and more people stopped by my poster, I got used to it and I wasn’t as shy as I was before. And so this year, I wasn’t as shy as I was even last year and I had a lot more people stop by my poster and most of them were intrigued in it. I built up confidence in myself and was able to now show some real leadership.”
While developing their research projects, students are exposed to hands-on scientific techniques and are encouraged to cater their work to community priorities. Hilaire compared butter clam predation by otters and humans across four beaches around Hydaburg. Chavonne Guthrie presented on the integration of traditional ecological knowledge in assessing the health of the surrounding watersheds. Taylor Natkong helped monitor the health of Hydaburg’s marina using shipworms as indicators.
Preparing Students Starts at Home
Over the years, the Hydaburg Geoscience Education Program has brought 20 Hydaburg students to the AISES conference. Smythe, however, is a firm believer that truly empowering the next generation of scientific leaders requires more than a yearly conference, it requires the continual support of an entire community.
Garnering support for an idea in a small tribal village isn’t simple or easy. You have to earn it, Smythe said.
“We started in 2008, and in the first year we didn’t go into the school, we just worked with elders and the tribe,” she said. “We took a baseline to see what they thought about the education system in Hydaburg, about us coming there, about us teaching science and how they wanted us to teach it. How could we apply culture and in what ways?”
The program evolved to include the school system. Kadake remembers Smythe’s first field trips as being pivotal in shaping her future.
“When Wendy came, she’d bring us outside and teach us different methods, teach us about macro-invertebrates and how they can show how healthy our streams are,” Kadake said. “Just learning outside the box instead of learning inside the classroom is what brought me closer to wanting to learn more about science.”
The program aims to not only bring science to Hydaburg but to make science more relevant and meaningful for Hydaburg. To do this, the team constantly redefines what it means to do science.
“Our elders, the stories they tell us, our traditional science- that’s grounded in science. Traditional knowledge and storytelling are a way of telling a scientific story,” Smythe said. “They’re just different ways to go about it — different observations and different measurements that we use, that our elders have used, to gauge the environment and be able to tell what’s happening. They use fireweed to tell when winter is coming, when the top of the fireweed is white, winter is coming in a few weeks- that’s science!”
The program has helped support the recording of oral histories from community elders for three years. Those recordings stand as an invaluable resource for not only students, but the community as a whole.
In this way and in others, Haida culture influences the program’s scientific methods and the group’s scientific methods also grow Haida culture.
“About four years into it, we started tying language into the program to not only to teach our language but to actually grow our language,” Smythe said. “There is no Haida word for ‘bacteria’ or ‘computer’ or ‘calculator’. So, we came up with a glossary and worked with Ben Young who worked with our elders, Claude Morrison and my auntie Alma Cook and granny Annie Peele, and it took a long time because they had to discuss, ‘Well what is a computer? How would we describe it in our language?’ We started to grow our language and that was so exciting for the whole community.”
Perhaps the most significant element of the program for building community support is that the science often leads to tangible positive change.
“We use biology to assess the health of the community across all the student’s projects,” Smythe said. “In the marine environment we looked at shipworms, they are related to clams and are sensitive to pollution. We did a study in the marina and we found that in the top column of water, that the shipworms weren’t colonizing. This told us that something was wrong, something was going on and that information was given to the tribe and they used that to write a grant and then got the funds to clean up the marina.”
Using that grant, the tribe was able to pull an impressive 4,000 pounds of debris off the sea floor in 2014.
“After the cleanup, the kids put more traps out and we pulled them this summer and there is colonization along this entire column of water!” she said. “We haven’t released that information yet, we haven’t really told anybody but, it’s really exciting though.”
Measuring Success: To Walk in Two Worlds
The road to empowering the next generation of community leaders and scientists is certainly not without obstacles. Among the many challenges are the high turnover of teachers in Hydaburg’s school system and the lack of support for Native students at some American colleges, Smythe said.
“I warn students to be careful when selecting a college, to remember that you aren’t just a number,” Smythe said. “When you are a number in a program just to increase diversity, your needs aren’t being met and they don’t care. Find a school that respects you and your culture.”
Regardless of the obstacles, the Geoscience Education Program has celebrated many notable successes. The community has mentored students from high school to careers in science, broken down the barriers that divide science and culture and has helped to grow a language. Along the way, Hydaburg has catered scientific inquiry to monitor, improve and protect the health of the local environment on which this community depends. All of this was achieved in just seven years, with the program continuing to grow.
“Years ago, we didn’t have this expectation for kids to participate in the program; it’s always voluntary,” Smythe said. “When we first went in, we had two or three people on the field trips but now, this summer we just had all 50 kids. Now, it’s expected from parents for their kids to participate. And the next few years are going to be exciting as we work to expand this program and we have already begun to build new partnerships with the University of Utah, Ocean Genome Lab in Boston, and Michigan State University.”
Community support for a new generation of leaders is also growing.
“The other key challenge we have tried to address in this program is this feeling that when you leave and then come back, you are considered different, right? So, we have been able to overcome that by constantly tying the community in,” Smythe said. “Now, there is support from the community for our students who decide to go away to school. And, that’s been beautiful to see. Naturally, there is that feeling of loss from the family, and we constantly stress that we aren’t trying to take this kid out of the community. We want them to leave, go to school, and then come back. We want them to be the environmental planners that can talk on both the traditional and scientific side. We want them to be the teachers so that they can teach science from a traditional knowledge perspective because they know it and they live it. We want to have our own kids grow up to be the community protectors and able to not only walk in the tribal community but in the science world when our resources are threatened.”
The Hydaburg Geoscience Education Program has been made possible through the support of the National Science Foundation, the Hydaburg Cooperative Association, the Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction at OHSU. The team is especially grateful to the elders for guiding them along this journey, Doreen Witwer and Tony Christianson for their support of the program, and the community of Hydaburg for its supporting of local students.
To learn more visit http://www.stccmop.org/education/k12/geoscience