Using the Humanities as a Gateway for STEM Engagement

Winn, Bosman and Chelberg

ryan winn, lisa bosman and kelli chelberg | aug. 2016

Burton Arthur reads one of the books from the 'Future Engineer in Training Series' at the Glas Coffee House in Shawano. Photo by DKakkak, College of Menominee Nation.The scientific research community has a communication problem. The details of the invaluable role they play in improving the quality of human life are largely unknown to the American public. While most people realize that scientific discoveries lead to a gamut of innovations, how many can name the career fields of the researchers, let alone describe the work those researchers complete? Since many parents and teachers are unsure of the specifics of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, it's no wonder that the STEM community has trouble enticing the next generation of would-be-researchers. When was the last time you heard a grade-schooler announce that she aspired to be a mathematician when she grows up? Do you remember a Halloween where you saw an aspiring mechanical engineer on your doorstep? Can you name a kid-friendly book series where the science behind the books' resolution was explained to the readers? Those of us who teach in the College of Menominee Nation's STEM HERO program are committed to shifting the paradigms about scientific engagement in Northeastern Wisconsin and our model of using the humanities as a gateway for STEM engagement is one that can help others succeed where traditional educational methods have failed.

In most educational settings the humanities courses are often reduced to being merely “the fluff classes," with little note given to the creative thinking, problem solving and communication strategies these courses instill in their students. At the opposite end of the catalog are the STEM classes, which are often labeled as “the hard sciences" since they require an ability to apply scientific principles to real world problems. The accepted belief in most educational settings is that these two fields are in opposite silos of the preverbal academic farm, and cross-pollinating their educational processes is downright unthinkable. Yet the folly in keeping the educational disciplines segregated is that it teaches students that a thinking process is limited to the coursework it's taught in, rather than showing young minds that a skillset is transferable throughout one's educational pursuits.

The complete 'Future Engineer in Training Series.'In our roles as educators at College of Menominee Nation, a tribal college with campuses in Keshena and Green Bay, Wis., we're looking to counteract the conventional wisdom limiting educational collaboration. Documents such as the 2010 President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Report confirmed what we were seeing in our classrooms. That report and others like it highlight that there's a large STEM performance and interest gap in underrepresented groups such as Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics and women. We also were considering how to counteract the findings of the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 Report, which stated that American Indians and Alaska Natives received a mere 0.4 percent of all master's degrees in science and engineering between 1985 and 2005. Additionally, in 2000, less than 1 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives earned a bachelor's degree in engineering. This was a problem not only for our engineering program's enrollment but also for the richness of discovery that diverse workforces inherently produce.

In the fall of 2011, we created CMN's STEM HERO program, which aims at building interest and student self-efficacy in STEM, in particular for CMN's new degree offerings including an A.S. in pre-engineering and an A.S. in pre-engineering technology. The word HERO is an acronym that captures the ideas that its participants will Help others learn about STEM, Explore STEM education and career paths, Refine STEM skills and engage in Outreach and STEM artifact development. For our college, the program allows students to explore STEM fields at varying levels of commitment, with the hopes that we can broaden participation in the disciplines.

Lincoln Peters and Taylor Oudenhoven discuss final edits for their book, 'Environmental Engineering: Marvin Moose and the Aquaponics Project.'  Photo by DKakkak, College of Menominee Nation.To be certain, the hard sciences are needed for all STEM students, but perhaps the most interesting part of our initiative is the richness that practical application of humanities' principles produces. In the past two years alone, our outreach and STEM artifact development students have produced posters and presentations that are based upon the attention grabbing techniques common in communication courses. Moreover, we have written and performed a short skit titled, “CMN's Solar Energy Research Institute Goes To Washington," for the Menominee Youth Empowerment Program and the surrounding community. The skit speculated what would happen if our students were summoned before a hostile U.S. Senate subcommittee to discuss their research utilizing the college's solar panels and we used both humor and obtuse questions to repeat the key takeaways we hoped our audience would remember. The feedback for our efforts was unanimously positive, and it served to lay the groundwork for our most successful venture to date.

During the Fall 2015 semester, CMN's STEM HERO students produced its first children's book series. It contained five books, one for each of the clans in the Menominee system, and told stories of young would-be scientists who had to complete STEM research in order to solve the problems he/she faced. The books were collectively called the “Future Engineers in Training Series." They used challenges such as constructing a deer stand, a haunted Halloween yard display, a science fair project, a remote control boat and an aquaponics garden system to introduce students to the problem-solving potential of civil, biomedical, electrical, mechanical and environmental engineering. CMN's students had to blend their STEM and humanities skills to conduct research, create conflict situations, add characters and complications and then build the stories to triumphant conclusions. This required them to cross-pollinate their ideas in ways not typically found in mainstream educational models.

Hot off the presses, the series was met with both enthusiasm and praise. The books were illustrated by CMN alumnus Sadie Milner and were given to local schools and libraries that serve as CMN's educational partners. Our students began staging readings in local classrooms and coffee shops. Soon requests led us to make the series available for purchase, at no-profit, through amazon.com. Yet the relationship that reaped the greatest returns for us was our partnership with the YMCA after school program in Green Bay. We collaborated to share the books and corresponding engineering-based activities with grade school students in multiple schools over four week periods. When we first visited the schools the young students hadn't heard of, much less considered, what engineers contributed to society. When we completed our visits, many of them considered themselves to be “Future Engineers in Training" too.

Those of us who teach in the College of Menominee Nation's STEM HERO program are not only committed to shifting the paradigms about scientific engagement in Northeastern Wisconsin, we have evidence that our methodology engages both our college's students and the young minds they reach. We're always looking for new opportunities to share our research and form partnerships with other likeminded educators, and we hope that those of you who are interested will reach out to us through the contact information listed below. We know that our model of using the humanities as a gateway for STEM engagement can help others succeed where traditional educational methods have failed, because, like so many curious minds in our state, we're thinking beyond the brick and mortar classrooms. Don't take our word for it, check out the books yourself. Recognize their potential and consider connecting our work with the future engineers in training in your life. Our goal is to increase Northeastern Wisconsin's engagement in STEM fields and if that means that there are a few less hopeful princesses and a few more aspiring engineers on your doorstep this Halloween, then so be it.


Ryan Winn, M.A., Lisa Bosman,Ph.D. and Kelli Chelberg, M.S. teach in the College of Menominee Nation's STEM HERO program and can be reached at lbosman@menominee.edu.

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