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November 6, 2020 by Tarissa Spoonhunter

CWC Receives Grant to Research Indigenous-based STEM Education

The National Science Foundation has awarded researchers at Central Wyoming College and partner institutions a total of $739,619 in collaborative research grants to address the under-representation of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines and workforce.

The Cultivating Indigenous Research Communities for Leadership in Education and STEM (CIRCLES) Alliance builds on existing partnerships with tribal communities and tribal colleges in six states in the western half of the United States to develop a collective strategy for increasing the engagement, involvement and success of AI/AN students in STEM. These states include Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. In addition, the award also brings the partnership within the larger National Science Foundation, Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science national community.

“The CIRCLES Alliance looks to increase the knowledge gained by the combined effort of states that will collectively engage and impact AI/AN communities through conversation, interviews, and relationship building with the tribal entities in each state,” said Aaron Thomas, director of Indigenous Research and STEM education and an associate professor of chemistry at UM. “We recognize that a different framework is needed for AI/AN students that recognizes and incorporates the unique traditional knowledge, sense of place, rights of sovereignty, and culture of Indigenous peoples.” 

Through the CIRCLES Alliance, researchers at the University of Idaho, Central Wyoming College, the University of New Mexico, Black Hills State University, North Dakota State University and UM will build on strong, existing partnerships with tribal communities and colleges to study promising practices and areas of greatest need in STEM education for AI/AN students.


Traditional Ecological Knowledge is the pathway for tribal worldview when recruiting tribal students into STEM. AI students tend to shy away from STEM thinking it has no connection to their tribal worldviews. When you talk about plants, animals, water, oil and gas, and other natural resources those topics are STEM in tribal communities. ”

Tarissa Spoonhunter, associate professor of American Indian studies at CWC

The project will look to develop AI/AN-based STEM education activities for K-12 and higher education students, as well as become a model for partnering with tribal communities to advance Indigenous-based STEM education. Ultimately, the project aims to support tribal communities in producing a STEM-ready workforce to meet their communities’ unique economic development needs.

 “With 10.5% of the nation’s AI/AN population residing within our project’s six states, we are poised to make meaningful, collective impact across our region while generating results and approaches that can be scaled nationally,” Thomas said.

Serving the Wind River Indian Reservation with programming that is designed to meet the needs of the tribal population is a major focus of Central Wyoming College. The grant will assist in developing programs that have the potential to attract many more students to STEM education at an early age as well as in higher education.

“We are fortunate to have Dr. Spoonhunter at CWC,” President Brad Tyndall said. “This type of research could dramatically change the way we teach science and technology programs, ultimately attracting more diverse students to degrees in STEM. This is particularly exciting research for our region and for Wyoming as technology is a huge area of focus for our new economy.”