Arizona Native American Students Travel To Sri Lanka As STEAM Ambassadors

By Andrew Bernier
Published: Friday, December 18, 2015 - 9:12am
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(Photo courtesy of Abdul J. Nowzad - U.S. Embassy, Colombo)
Salt River-Pima and Sri Lanka students pose with Joshua Shen of the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka.

It isn’t often middle school students are selected to represent their country internationally. It also isn’t often girls and minorities are given a chance to succeed in fields like science and technology. But new opportunity in a small country halfway across the world may help empower communities often left behind in STEM fields.

The concept of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is well known to many. And a variation of that acronym, STEAM, where the "A" represents arts, is gaining traction in education, particularly on the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Community reservation east of Scottsdale.

“A lot of our native students, no matter where they come from, they are very visual and they express themselves a lot of times in art and hands-on," said Maria Chavez, who works at Salt River Elementary. "And so, by adding the arts I think it really helps them to feel more comfortable with it and think, ‘Oh, I can do this, I can be a part of this, I have something to add.’”

This addition has been critical to engaging native students into STEM education, something that Principal Erik Haarstad is pushing hard at his school.

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“It ties into 21st century global learning so it’s a big jump for us," said Haarstad. "We’ve been focusing on the STEM curriculum, integrating STEM across the curriculum. And now it’s just taken to a whole new level where we’re going beyond school and what the state.”

And now beyond the country. Two Salt River-Pima students left Saturday for Sri Lanka, the tear-drop shaped island nation just south of India. Prompted by faculty connections to the country, the students were selected to serve as STEAM ambassadors. Haarstad said this is rare chance for his middle school students.

“I just can’t imagine. I mean the age that these kids are at and traveling twenty hours by plane and landing in Sri Lanka," said Haarstad. "I know they’re a little bit nervous, because I would be a little bit nervous, too. But they’re excited at the same time, and I think they’re going to represent our community so well.”

At the final briefing with their parents, the students were surprisingly shy. But one of them, sixth-grader Dominique, spoke up about what she wanted to learn.

“I wanna know their language, like how to say hi and bye," said Dominique. "How their lifestyle is over there and how different is their schooling from here.”

“Being in their environment will change her,” said Tara, Dominique's mother.

“This is like the biggest trip. I know it will help her, so much, to see a lot of different cultures, you know, with the schools," said Tara. "I mean, it’s just going to change how she sees the world. Bring her down to Earth.”

Why Sri Lanka?

“Sri Lanka sees STEM as something they need,” said Joshua Shen with the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka. He said the U.S. State Department made STEM a focus for all embassies.

“And they’ve been encouraging us to do more programs to engage with the young people and foster STEM and STEAM excellence," said Shen. "Sri Lanka’s education system needed a little hand, so that is the basis for our mission.”

Shen said the student’s mission, along with workshop scientists and facilitators, is simple.

“To put together a series of practical science experiments, robotics, and present those as the textbooks in a way, for our workshop curriculum," said Shen. "And this way, teachers would reuse it and that material can be passed on.”

Shen said new opportunities for groups in Sri Lanka to partner with other countries have started thanks to the end of a 30-year civil war and new elections this year. But, many cultural issues are still holding the country back.

“One of the top issues here has been gender-based violence and the role of women in this country," Shen said. "So, these science ambassadors from the Pima-Maricopa community, they are really role models for girls here to say okay, they can look into the STEM fields, they can be scientists.”

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Chavez hopes the students also will serve as role models for students in other tribes.

“Even though we’re just one community, we want to make all native people, especially in our area, our sister tribes, proud of us,” Chavez said.

And to keep girls and minorities interested in STEAM, Shen said keeping the "A" is critical.

“Science requires a level of creativity. And that creativity is born out of failures and making mistakes and learning from your mistakes and figuring out a different way to approach a problem,” said Shen.

And organizers hope to learn what mistakes need adjustment to make this opportunity a regular event.