SISTEM one-on-onefrom Saskatchewan, Canada with Ms. Alysa Loring: “A look at Alaska Native science education”.
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SISTEM one-on-one from Saskatchewan, Canada with Ms. Alysa Loring: "A look at Alaska Native science education".

Alysa loring

I am an anthropologist with interests in education, Indigenous Studies, and climate change. I currently work as a contract researcher for the Sustainable Futures North project ( I hold Master's degrees in both anthropology and education, both from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and I am certified to teach secondary English, French, and Social Studies. I have taught at both the middle and high school levels in California, Alaska, and Thailand, and have also consulted on multiple education research and cross-cultural curriculum development projects. My primary research interests are in cross-cultural education, multiple ways of knowing and learning, and environmental science outreach and communication. My expertise is in the design, development, and implementation of culturally-relevant, place-based science curriculum. I approach learning as a "whole-person" process, of which actual classroom-based activities are only one (important) part. My work in these areas over the years has afforded me the opportunity to work with educators, elders, and culture-bearers from many parts of Alaska and Hawai'i. As well, I have worked with leading arctic scientists on outreach concerning climate change and arctic sea ice, and on developing interdisciplinary environmental science programming.

Q:    Please tell us about yourself and the path that led to your interest of Alaska Native Science.

Loring: I became interested in Alaska Native science education through my own studies, training, and work as both an anthropologist and as an educator. These afforded me the opportunity to work closely with educators, leaders, elders, and researchers in remote, rural areas of Alaska on blending contemporary curriculum with Native ways of knowing. There are many challenges associated with incorporating multiple ways of knowing in the classroom. Nevertheless, when considering Alaska Native science education, I see an opportunity to improve education as a whole - to address the modern "education crisis" with the wisdom of traditional ways of knowing, doing, and being. I also have family ties to Alaska, and these were an important part of my decision to move there and pursue graduate studies in anthropology and education.

I have come to understand that modern education in Alaska is founded on a history of cultural hegemony that continues to impact Alaska Native students' learning. For many students, daily life in rural Alaska is a complex blend of traditional values and modern conveniences. The subsistence lifestyle and deep community/family ties remain strong and important, though in this age of the internet, electricity, and gasoline-powered transportation, Alaska Native youth can struggle to reconcile the traditional with the modern. When students step into the school building, western education values reign, and a disconnect between "education" and traditional learning places an undue burden on students. Whereas western education assumes a "one size fits all" method (which frequently fails Native students), Native ways of learning and knowing are more holistic, with culture as an important, embedded aspect of learning. Contrary in many ways to the values that underlie western education, Native ways of knowing share many same values and can complement western-style science. My work therefore focuses on improving education by intertwining the values and methods of traditional and western-style education, in order to both achieve best-practices and help students reach their own goals of success.

Q:   What would be your recommendations about converging Western science and traditional Alaska Native science in curriculum and instruction?

Loring: It is crucial to understand that State cultural standards for education should not be thought of as separate from and/or contrary to State science standards. Rather, culture is rooted to local lifeways and plays a crucial role in how students live, learn, and perceive the world and their place within it. As such, converging traditional Alaska Native ways of knowing and learning with mainstream classroom science curriculum and instruction is crucial to students' success. Doing this may at first seem daunting; however, when educators focus on the commonalities, the facility with which this can be done becomes clear. Common to both Native science and western-style science are: reliance on prior knowledge, data analysis, peer networking, specific technologies for specific tasks, sharing information and findings, and local-to-global significance.

Historically, Alaska Native wisdom was passed from generation to generation through close interaction, mimicry, storytelling, and observation. The lessons and life values learned through this method are no less important in the modern world, and elders and culture-bearers have much to teach the younger generation. Classroom teachers can tap into this knowledge by working closely with elders and community members - regularly inviting them into the classroom or on excursions outside the classroom walls, thereby reinforcing commonalities between traditional and western ways of knowing. Engagement with elders, culture-bearers, and community members can also aid the teacher (who may not be from the community) in learning about the local environment, and how it can be used and referenced in daily lessons.

Q:   In your opinion, what are the top 3 reasons for the low STEM participation of Alaska Natives?

Loring: Education in Alaska, and specifically Alaska Native education, is a complex issue. The modern education system was founded during an era of colonialism that saw traditional culture suppressed and even physically beaten out of people. The resulting legacy is one that has left many Alaska Natives with the impression that western education and Native culture are two opposing forces - despite efforts to change this in recent decades. As a result, it is difficult to isolate three specific reasons for low Alaska Native STEM participation. Nevertheless, there are three "top" factors that play a significant role: 1) the continuing perception that the values of traditional Alaska Native science and western science are dichotomous; 2) extremely high rates of teacher turnover in rural schools; and 3) the isolation and culture-shock that students experience when they leave their villages to pursue university studies.

The notion that traditional methods of learning are less important and valuable than mainstream education does little to encourage students to pursue STEM. I argue, in fact, that it leaves students with the impression that STEM is irrelevant - thereby discouraging them from pursuing careers in these fields. Whereas science is frequently taught in isolated subjects (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.), with very little attention to the bigger picture, traditional Alaska native learning is more holistic, and takes a whole-picture approach. By retooling the curriculum to be more interdisciplinary, place-based, and culturally-responsive, students can learn to see the importance and value of STEM in their lives and futures.

There is an especially high rate of teacher turnover in rural areas of Alaska. In addition, the majority of teachers come from 'Outside' (of Alaska) and have little to no understanding of the history and cultural values of the community to which they've come. The result is that students, teachers, and community members never fully acclimate to one another: misunderstandings ensue, and again, the relevance of education (and STEM) is lost. Further, many teachers find themselves teaching subjects in which they have little training. In this case, the teacher's ability to engage and excite students around STEM may be missing.

Finally, for those students who are interested in STEM and seek to pursue studies in these fields, other difficulties stand in the way. The university and academic environment can be very isolating for many young people who choose to pursue higher education. As a result, the dropout rate of Alaska Natives is much higher than for non-Native students. This culture shock and the lack of community support structures that could help students deal with it clearly impact students' decisions to continue their academic pursuits.

Q:  How can we increase the number of Alaska Natives in STEM?

Loring: Like all issues in education, increasing the number of Alaska Natives in STEM is not a problem that is simply solved, but rather is a complex and multifaceted one requiring complex and multifaceted solutions. One way to move toward encouraging Native participation in STEM is to increase the place-based and culturally-relevant material within the curriculum in order to help students see its relevance and application to their own lives. Research shows that when students are taught western academic skills through indigenous concepts, practices, and values, students' attainment of core concepts and engagement with and participation in learning activities increases.

Developing place-based and culturally-responsive curriculum requires extensive collaboration - among Native Elders, educators, community members, school boards, and beyond. It also takes a great deal of time, effort, and money - and for these reasons it has historically been somewhat difficult to implement. Nevertheless, teachers can work within their local communities to identify key strategies, methods, and knowledge to implement in their own programs. In addition, an increased participation in programs like the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) can further engage students in STEM and help them apply their learning to solving real-world problems within their communities.

Q:   Finally, in your opinion, how important is it to include the traditional Alaska Native science knowledge in today's STEM education in Alaska?

Loring: I think it is crucial to intertwine traditional Alaska Native science methods not only in STEM but, in all aspects of mainstream education in Alaska. Traditional Alaska Native learning is holistic, and as such it emphasizes not only science content, but also skills to be successful in all aspects of life. As such, these are values that need not be isolated as "Alaska Native" only - indeed, they are valuable to all students. Nevertheless, education in rural Alaska today remains complicated and rife with conflict. Tensions continue to exist between those who control the education system (and who are largely non-Native), and indigenous communities throughout the state. Integrating Alaska Native wisdom and knowledge within the curriculum, though crucial, must be done with leadership from local communities.  

One reason students do not pursue STEM is a perception that they cannot succeed - that there is no place for them in STEM fields. However, Alaska Native community members hold a wealth of unique and valuable environmental knowledge - wisdom that has been developed over eons. As the climate changes, university researchers are actively seeking Native participation to better understand climate and environmental changes and solutions. Alaska Natives have a powerful voice and can affect positive outcomes for their villages by working together with scientists to understand climate change and the impacts various adaptations might have on traditional lifeways. When traditional Alaska Native science knowledge and methods are integrated into the curriculum, students can easily make connections to real world applications, thereby improving their own perceptions of how they can participate and be successful in STEM fields.


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