What We Really Need: Educators in Indigenous Communities on Raising STEM Achievement

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Dr. AnnMaria De Mars  
Juliana Taken Alive  
Maria Burns Ortiz  

This study addresses “What factors do experts perceive as impacting STEM achievement of students in rural schools with predominantly Indigenous students?” Interviews with experienced educators in tribal communities identified six major themes. This session explores those findings and how they can shape curriculum, funding, technology needs and more.

Audience: Chief technology officers/superintendents/school board members, Curriculum/district specialists, Teachers
Attendee devices: Devices useful
Attendee device specification: Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Tablet: Android, iOS
Topic: Equity and inclusion
Grade level: PK-12
Subject area: Math, STEM/STEAM
ISTE Standards: For Education Leaders:
Equity and Citizenship Advocate
  • Ensure all students have access to the technology and connectivity necessary to participate in authentic and engaging learning opportunities.
Visionary Planner
  • Engage education stakeholders in developing and adopting a shared vision for using technology to improve student success, informed by the learning sciences.
  • Share lessons learned, best practices, challenges and the impact of learning with technology with other education leaders who want to learn from this work.
Disclosure: The submitter of this session has been supported by a company whose product is being included in the session

Proposal summary


A thematic analysis of interviews with 40 educators with a depth of experience identified six major themes: holistic STEM education, inclusion of local culture in STEM education, highly qualified staff, STEM curriculum and instruction, technology, and STEM funding. These themes were interrelated. Holistic education demanded more individualized curriculum and required more highly qualified staff who could adapt the curriculum and integrate technology with traditional knowledge, but these educators were harder to hire and retain due to low funding. Respondents with long tenure in the schools were disproportionately from rural, Indigenous communities, suggesting efforts to maintain highly qualified staff should begin with local recruitment for teacher education.


A snowball sampling method was used. Initial participants were known personally by at least one of the authors through their professional contacts. Each of the initial interviewees were contacted by email, with an explanation of the purpose of the study, i.e., to identify needs of Title I schools, and a request for an in-person interview. At the end of each interview, participants were asked to recommend anyone he or she considered extremely knowledgeable regarding educational needs of Title I schools. These educators were contacted via email, mentioning the colleague who had recommended him or her. In some cases, the original participants emailed their colleagues for us, copying the authors on their recommendation that the individuals participate in our study. Only respondents from Indigenous-serving schools (ISS) were included in the present study.
At no point did we explicitly request referrals to Indigenous educators, however, this method resulted in sample of 70% Indigenous respondents. While educators with Indigenous, rural roots were clearly more likely to remain in rural schools serving Indigenous students, it is also plausible that Indigenous educators were more likely to refer others of the same tribe.
Data collection 
Data collected for this research included interviews with 40 educators from 30 schools and two after-school programs, field notes from meetings with educators and site visits and documents provided by interviewees, including brochures and flyers describing after school programs, school and program websites. Two researchers were present during each interview, with one asking questions and the second recording responses verbatim. Interviewees were asked to schedule a minimum of fifteen minutes for the interview.  We made an effort to be cognizant of interviewees’ time and asked if they wanted to end the interview after 15 minutes.  Only four of the 40 interviews lasted less than 30 minutes, with the typical interview taking an hour.
Although we began our study specifically interested in the application of educational technology to meet rural educator needs, to prevent biasing answers in a specific direction, we started each interview with open-ended questions on the respondent’s experience and perceived barriers to developing STEM proficiency in students, ending the interview asking about technology.  Respondents were asked to expand on their responses as warranted. For example, a respondent who stated, “Students have difficulty focusing during math class” would be asked, “What do you think interferes with their ability to focus?” 
Most interviews were conducted in the educators’ offices or classrooms, which provided an opportunity for observing the school grounds and meeting with students and staff. Four interviews were conducted in conference rooms during intermural academic or athletic competitions, which prevented visiting the school sites but did allow observations of several students from each school participating in activities.  
The 40 interviews yield 618 coded text fragments which were categorized into six themes. All fragments were coded by two or three coders. After coding the first 100 themes, coders met and discussed any discrepancies. At this point, it was decided to allow text to be coded in up to two themes.
Shortly before the interviews occurred, data which had been collected by a federal agency for a different purpose had been used for publication of a report reflecting negatively on many of the communities in which we collected data. As a result, many potential respondents were wary of speaking with us. Although we had been approved by the university Institutional Review Board, one reservation required approval by their own IRB as well, and by the time this approval was received the schools had been closed in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. On two reservations, no one agreed to an interview in response to our first request. It was only after a personal request from the second author, a citizen of [U.S. Indigenous tribal nation] who had worked for over two decades in education in Indigenous communities that educators from those reservations agreed to be interviewed. As a precondition of the interviews, it was guaranteed that all data would be recorded and reported anonymously.
It should be noted that all of these interviews were conducted in early 2020, before any of the schools had transitioned to distance or hybrid learning. The last interviews were completed the same week that the first schools began to close for in-person instruction due to the pandemic.


Our findings emphasized that efforts to raise STEM achievement of Indigenous students attending rural schools should be embedded within consideration of the larger system, including the academic, emotional and cultural experiences of students and financial, technology and human resources available.
Although culturally responsive schooling has been advocated for over at least the past 40 years, schools on the reservation are failing to meet the needs of Indigenous students (Castagno & Brayboy, 2008). Truly culturally responsive learning for Indigenous youth is a highly complex endeavor that requires systemic change within and across several levels in our schooling system by taking into consideration the learning styles of Indigenous youth and their tribal cultural beliefs and practices.
Consistent with prior research (House Rich & Stein, 2018) we found funding to be a major factor in STEM achievement because it affected schools’ ability to hire and retain well-qualified staff, provide adequate professional development, purchase hardware, software and supplies. It’s been said throwing money at a problem isn’t a solution for education, but it may be when the problem is that the schools don’t have enough money.
The sample of educators we interviewed were overwhelmingly Indigenous themselves and from rural backgrounds. Neither ethnicity nor family background were part of our selection criteria. However, we found that teachers and administrators who had a long tenure in these systems with high turnover fit a definite profile – they had been raised in communities highly similar to the ones in which they worked. In this, our results are consistent with Gallo (2020), despite the fact that our schools were over 90% Indigenous students while the student body in her study was over 90% White. If schools are to meet the challenge of retaining highly qualified staff, a “grow your own” policy, of recruiting, educating and training teachers from rural, Indigenous communities should be attempted.


This research provides valuable and understudied perspectives to the body of academic literature surrounding rural U.S. Indigenous communities and STEM education. It became apparent early on in our research that although there were overlaps, there were also clear differences in the factors considered important by Indigenous student-serving schools (ISS) and other rural schools, and that rural schools serving Indigenous students had some additional specific concerns. This drove our decision to begin analysis of the data by considering these schools as a separate group.
Indigenous student-serving schools differ from other rural institutions both quantitatively and qualitatively. They are not simply more rural, with lower performance in mathematics, but also must address different community concerns. In ISS schools, the disconnect between students’ cultures and the curriculum, and the distrust of schooling, most notably rooted in the history of residential schools, present additional challenges (Greenwood, 2009; Hewitt, 2017).
Few studies have tested the impact of integrating culture on mathematics achievement. The National Indian Education Study (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019) found that schools with materials on Native Americans/Alaskan Natives in the library, media or resource center had significantly greater proportions of Indigenous students who were high achievers in math and science. De Mars and Longie (2018) found Indigenous students attending schools on a reservation who played an educational math game that applied the Dakota value of perseverance, encouraging students to steady and continued effort in the face of difficulties, significantly improved their math scores compared to the control group. This program integrated a core value of Dakota culture with the Common Core standard of mathematical practice, “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” While valuable, what these quantitative studies lacked was the perspective of the educators in the schools serving these students.
Self-identified needs and priorities of ISS educators around STEM education and technology. Our initial charge in collecting these data was to identify the needs of Title I schools that could be addressed through funding of educational technology innovations. No matter how much a funding agency might want a model to raise STEM achievement of Indigenous students in rural schools with a simple educational technology solution, the data simply did not fit. In terms of frequency, technology was the fourth-most frequent mentioned theme – and use of technology in STEM education was a question specifically asked at the end of the interview. While educators were interested in technology their interest was predicated on adequate funding for professional development, hardware and infrastructure support, technology that supported local culture, integrated with cross-curricular STEM instruction. They most emphatically wanted to tell us that absolutely nothing would substitute for highly qualified staff nor could deployment of any software ignore the fact that the typical classroom served students across several years of grade level and who had good reasons for being disengaged with academic content.
Integration and importance of culturally relevant and reflective curriculum. Our own experiences as educators have led us to concur with Indigenous leaders in education (Crazy Bull, 2015; Faircloth, 2009) and those of our respondents who see the promise of education that combines traditional knowledge and contemporary experience. This integrated education provides youth the capabilities to be successful whether they choose to leave their home communities or remain. Speaking from our own experience, it is exhausting to navigate through the curriculum that teaches only about the history of other people, that does not include the strengths of one’s own culture. Even when Indigenous people are included in the curriculum it is from a predominantly deficit perspective - alcoholism and poverty in current day or how treaties were forced upon people and then broken in history. The curriculum can -- and should -- include an accurate history of Indigenous peoples. In contrast to earlier assimilative education that attempted to break ties to communities (Greenwood, 2009), effective science and mathematics education strengthen ties through connection of content to students’ lives as both rural residents and Indigenous children and youth.
Technology can have a role in this holistic education, primarily as a facilitator, that makes it easier to assess children's knowledge and the forum to share Indigenous STEM education ideas. However, resources, whether technology, teachers or curriculum are ineffective if they insist on acting as if all students are identical.  


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Dr. AnnMaria De Mars, 7 Generation Games

Dr. De Mars is president of 7 Generation Games, creating and researching games designing to bridge the mathematics achievement gap in underserved communities. She is also Principal Investigator of the Growing Math project, funded by USDA. She has taught math at all levels from 5th grade through doctoral students. In her spare time, she teaches statistics courses in the graduate program at National University and judo at Gompers Middle School.

Juliana Taken Alive, Standing Rock Tribal Department of Education

Juliana Taken Alive is Hunkpapa/Mnicoujou Lakota. She is an enrolled member and citizen of the Standing Rock Nation. Her experiences include teaching, administration, instructional coaching, education policy in public and tribal schools, tribal college director, and South Dakota High Leverage Problem (HLP) LeadMcREL International Region 11 Comprehensive Center. Juliana is the former Director of the South Dakota Office of Indian Education.

Maria Burns Ortiz, 7 Generation Games

Maria Burns Ortiz is co-founder and CEO of 7 Generation Games, developing educational games and interactive apps aimed at closing the math gap with a focus on U.S. Latino and Indigenous communities. She is a NY Times best-selling author and teaching artist at Minneapolis’ Loft Literary Center. Previous to 7 Generation Games, Maria was an award-winning journalist and taught at Emerson College and Tufts University. She is a Forbes Next 1000 Honoree, while 7 Generation Games is the 2021 Minne Inno Blazer Award winner for education startup.

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