UM Part of National Network Aiming to Increase Native Participation in STEM Careers

June 25, 2014

MISSOULA – The University of Montana is part of a new national network that recently received a three-year, $2.4 million grant to increase the number of indigenous Americans obtaining advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced June 23 that it is forming a three-year collaboration with the Montana University System, which includes UM, Montana State University and Montana Tech; as well as the University of Alaska, the University of Arizona and Purdue University.

The new national network, the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership, aims to strengthen and expand successful initiatives at each of the four partners to recruit, train and graduate American Indian and Alaska Native students in STEM disciplines.

 “When it comes to meeting the needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students, Alaska, Arizona, Montana and Purdue are truly exemplary programs,” said Elizabeth Boylan, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Now they’re coming together to forge new opportunities and expand their already measurable impact.”

“The Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership will allow us to further the efforts of the University of Montana and the Montana University System in recruiting and retaining Indigenous students,” said Aaron Thomas, chemistry associate professor and the director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education at UM. “The funding allows Native graduate students the opportunity to focus on their graduate work while creating a supportive Native community.”

According to Boylan, most of the $2.4 million in grant funds will go directly to American Indian and Alaska Native students in the form of stipends, providing support to an estimated 59 graduate students and 20 doctoral students.

Other funds will support programming, recruitment and retention activities; the collaborative development and sharing of best practices for the recruitment and support of American Indian/Alaska Native graduate students; and the creation of professional development opportunities such as student exchange programs.

American Indian and Alaska Native students traditionally have been underrepresented in graduate education. Though they make up 1.2 percent of the U.S. population, American Indians earned just 0.3 percent of all doctorates in 2012, less than the 0.5 percent share earned 20 years earlier. In engineering and all science fields other than the social sciences, only 48 research doctorates went to American Indian/Alaska Natives in 2012, among the 11,764 awarded to all U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

According to the Sloan Foundation, the 20 doctoral students who will be funded by the SIGP over the three-year grant will contribute meaningfully to diversifying the national STEM workforce with additional American Indian and Alaska Native graduate-degree holders.

This historically low level of participation is due in part to the unique challenges graduate study poses to American Indian students, which often include feelings of cultural and social isolation. The national SIGP network aims to reduce these difficulties by creating supportive, welcoming environments. In addition, scholarships help students focus on degree completion, reducing or eliminating the need to earn extra money for living expenses.

More than 200 American Indian/Alaska Native students have been part of individual SIGP campus programs to date, and according to Boylan, graduates are providing expertise and leadership important to their communities.

“We are at a significant transition point in the history of the SIGP,” she said. “The campuses are now funded to work cooperatively to leverage their individual efforts into a national presence, to enhance mentoring and professional development across the network, and to continue enabling indigenous American graduate students to succeed in STEM master’s and Ph.D. programs. We are pleased to have the SIGP as one of the signature elements of Sloan’s STEM Higher Education program.”

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation was established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-president and chief executive officer of the General Motors Corporation. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit, grant-making institution that supports original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and economics. This grant was funded through the foundation’s STEM Higher Education program, which aims to increase the quality diversity of U.S. higher education in STEM fields.

For more information about UM’s involvement, call Thomas at 406-243-2052 or email aaron.thomas@umontana.edu.

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Contact: Aaron Thomas, director of UM Indigenous Research and STEM Education, 406-243-2052, aaron.thomas@umontana.edu.