Q: Tell us about the path that led you to the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP):
Schroeder: During the early 90s, I was doing research on sanitation in rural Alaska. At the time there were 104 honey bucket villages in the state and along with the honey buckets came high infant mortality rates, endemic enteric diseases, skin diseases and so on. The engineers working on mitigation efforts were all from outside the state and in two years of research I never met an Alaska Native engineer. One of our conclusions was that we could improve the situation by having Alaska Natives working with the communities to solve some of the sanitation problems. In addition, I noticed that few university students were Alaska Native. Upon investigation, I learned that teachers in remote villages did not encourage students to take high-level math and science courses, and in nearly every village, did not offer advanced STEM courses. Thus, students were not properly prepared academically or socially for university coursework, became discouraged and left school.
To improve the situation, I created a program that worked with students outside of the regular K-12 system and allowed them to get on track for science and engineering degrees early in their education. We began with a scholarship for a single Alaska Native university student in 1995. Now in its 21st year, ANSEP offers six linked components that begin at the middle school level and provide hands-on industry experience to students throughout their college years and even into doctorate programs. Our University has graduated 390 Alaska Native students from STEM bachelor’s degrees since 1995.
Q: Please tell us about ANSEP, including its creation (who created it and why) and programs/initiatives (middle school, high school, and university and graduate):
Schroeder: ANSEP’s objective is to effect systemic change in the hiring patterns of Indigenous Americans in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by placing its students on a career path to leadership. Only six percent of workers in computer, engineering and science occupations in Alaska are Indigenous Americans. In the U.S., 40 percent of native students do not finish high school, and only 4 percent attend college prepared for science and engineering degrees. Dr. Schroeder founded ANSEP as a scholarship program for a single Alaska Native university student in 1995. Today, ANSEP offers six linked components for middle school, high school, college and graduate students. ANSEP’s multi-stage model includes the Middle School Academy, STEM Career Explorations, Acceleration Academy, Summer Bridge, University Success and Graduate Success. The model provides a pipeline of STEM workers for Alaska.
ANSEP’s longitudinal model begins at the middle school level with its Middle School Academy (MSA). MSA provides students with a 12-day residential experience at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) designed to immerse students in STEM career areas early in their educational careers and keep them on track to complete algebra 1 before high school. At MSA, students work on projects with professional scientists and engineers, build computers and learn to navigate a university campus. The next step is STEM Career Explorations, which provides an opportunity for students who previously attended MSA to return to UAA for a five-day residential camp that focuses on a particular STEM field and one week long problem that students solve in teams of three.
At the high school level, students participate in Acceleration Academy, a five-week summer session at UAA where students earn college credit through intensive summer courses taught by University professors and gain hands-on STEM experience solving problems in teams. High school graduates transitioning to University of Alaska campuses in the fall participate in Summer Bridge, which allows them to work alongside STEM professionals during paid internships, earn money for college and take a college math course all while becoming more comfortable in the university environment. Through ANSEP, 95 percent of Summer Bridge students continue on to engineering or science bachelor’s degree programs.
The University Success component provides support to undergraduate students enrolled in science and engineering majors at the University of Alaska. The component supports the social, academic and professional success of students by requiring them to meet high academic standards, complete STEM internships and actively participate in their learning community. In addition, ANSEP students who choose to purse masters, doctoral or other professional degrees in STEM fields can also receive financial support through the Graduate Success component.
Q: In your opinion, what are the top 3 reasons for the low STEM participation of Alaska Natives?
1. Young students are denied the inspiration, guidance and opportunity that are key to success because of racial bias in the K-12 system.
2. A lack of ethnic diversity within teaching ranks.
3. A lack of rural educators qualified in STEM.
Q: How can we increase the number of Alaska Natives in STEM?
Schroeder: Eliminate the three top reasons for low STEM participation of Alaska Natives listed above.
Q: Finally, in your opinion, how important is it to include the traditional Alaska Native science knowledge in today’s STEM education in Alaska?
Schroeder: Traditional knowledge is a very useful tool in the classroom. This is particularly true when students come to understand that their ancestors used the scientific method described by Newton for thousands of years before contact with the western world.
In Alaska, 84 percent of young residents who pursued degrees in science and engineering remained in the state following postsecondary education. ANSEP encourages its students to stay in Alaska for college by providing scholarships and a connection to the university. By infusing the fundamental values of community, culture, family and collaboration into all elements of the program, ANSEP builds a welcoming university environment and provides a cornerstone for success. Students feel welcome and valued at ANSEP, which encourages and empowers them to be successful in their education and career.
ANSEP students hope to advance and improve the communities that shape their cultural identity, which is why we must value their heritage and provide them with the means necessary to succeed and give back. ANSEP provides a multi-stage educational model intended to build a strong STEM pipeline that will fuel Alaska’s industries for years to come.