Embracing Diversity in STEM Education

September 6, 2016

NH EPSCoR and UNH summer institute help open doors for remote native Alaskan high school students.

by Evelyn Jones

DURHAM, NH - Seven high school students living in the small village of Nunapitchuk, AK, in the remote tundra 420 miles from the nearest city, attended the Project SMART summer institute at the University of New Hampshire.

The four-week summer institute challenges and educates high school students in science and mathematics while acquainting them with the UNH research environment in three areas: biotechnology and nanotechnology, marine and environmental science, and space science.

For the Alaskan natives, just getting on an airplane took a lot of courage. They’ve grown up in a subsistence lifestyle – hunting, fishing, berry picking, egg gathering, chopping wood for fuel, and preserving meals to last the winter. None had tasted food prepared in a restaurant. But that didn’t stop them from applying for a summer program across the country.

Ninety-two percent of the student body at Anna Tobeluk Memorial High School in Alaska is economically disadvantaged. “When I learned these students were from this remote area in Alaska and you hear how different their lives are from most high typical high school experiences, I knew I had to accept them into the program,” said Subhash Minocha, UNH professor and Project SMART Director. “I didn’t know how we were going to pay for it, so it was a bit of a blind leap, but what an incredible opportunity.”

Group photo of Alaskan high school students
High school students Chantel Tobeluk, Elijah Andrew, Chelsea Alexie, Zachariah Brink, Tatiana Parks, Dwayne Sergie, and Margaret Enoch with Project SMART Director Subhash Minocha.

Minocha reached out to NH EPSCoR, a research and education program funded by the National Science Foundation, one of several in a national network. EPSCoR colleagues in Alaska sponsored scholarships to send the students to Project SMART, opening doors not just for the students, but for the entire village in Nunapitchuk.

“This opportunity is expanding our education,” said high school student Chantel Tobeluk. “I studied cyanobacteria, which is increasing what we know about life science and marine science. We can pass this information on to our little brothers and sisters. We were shy at first coming here and it took us a little while to open up to people. We talked to other students in Project Smart on the biotech and environmental side and got ideas and different learning experiences from them. My favorite part of the camp was collecting data on Moosilauke mountain.”

Project SMART (Science and Mathematics Achievement through Research Training) boasts one of the most diverse groups of high school students to partake in any STEM education program at UNH. There were also three additional participants from Ketchikan, Alaska who received financial help from Project SMART. A large proportion of participants come from minority, underrepresented, economically disadvantaged, and rural as well as inner-city environs within the US (from Alaska to Maine and in between) and several other countries (Greece, Turkey, Jordan, Kazakhstan). The participants study advanced topics in different fields of science through lectures, discussions, hands-on laboratory experiences, and field trips, and learn to do research with UNH faculty and several scientists from the USDA Forest Service.

Chantel Tobeluk presenting her research
High school student Chantel Tobeluk from Nunapitchuk Alaska presents her Project SMART research on cyanobacteria in Morse Hall at the University of New Hampshire.

“I’m planning to become a biomedical engineer,” said high school student Elijah Andrew. “I did research on tuberculosis and all the things that could prevent and stabilize it. My favorite part about the camp was the people I’ve been with for the past month. They were really nice to work with and tried their best at everything they do. I’m was really surprised about being able to have this experience and glad. I’m from a smaller village close to Nunapitchuk, and this is my first time out of Alaska. The dean of our school, Mr. Sunderaj, was really encouraging us to think about coming, so when I looked at the options and saw biotechnology, I went for it. The people in the village and parents were not afraid of sending us, but some of the kids were too shy to go. I’m afraid of large areas, sometimes. But this is a great experience.”

In addition to learning and doing science, the students gain a greater appreciation for careers associated with the various sciences, and establish friendships with their peers and mentoring relationships with the UNH faculty. This was the 25th Year of Project SMART with further focus on increasing the diversity of students participating in the program; the students from Nunapitchuk made a significant contribution to that goal.

Project SMART is supported by the UNH President’s office, Provost’s office, College of Life Sciences and Agriculture, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, the Space Science Group, UNH Nanotechnology Program. The program also receives financial support from the Liberty Mutual Foundation, Summer Search Organization, and biotechnology companies that provide in-kind support (materials and supplies).