What does it mean to have a relationship with nature? For Indigenous kids, especially those who grew up in urban areas, this question can have complicated answers. To support these relationships and fill in what Western education might miss, researchers in Northwestern’s learning sciences program — in partnership with other universities, community members and educators — are developing science learning environments for Indigenous youth and their families. Brainstorm spoke to some of the student researchers working on the project.
JORDAN MANGI: What do you think of when you think about nature? The sound of birds singing? Water rushing in a creek? Plants, animals and other creatures you might not see in everyday life?
JORDAN MANGI: What does it mean to have a relationship with nature? For Indigenous kids, especially those who grew up in urban areas, this question can have complicated answers. Western science education doesn’t always leave room for indigenous ways of knowing about the environment. Researchers at Northwestern’s learning sciences program are trying to change this — to support these relationships and fill in what western education might miss.
JORDAN MANGI: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Jordan Mangi. this is brainstorm a podcast exploring all things science, health and tech. For this episode, I spoke to graduate and undergraduate students working on SESP’s Indigenous Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math, or ISTEAM project. Primarily, it has taken the form of week-long STEAM camps for Indigenous kids in Chicago and Seattle. It’s expansive and ongoing, with many researchers working on smaller research projects within the larger one. One of those researchers is Nikki McDaid.
NIKKI MCDAID: Behne, ne naniha Tsoo’wo Naibi, ne divona Nikki. Ne Sosoni deasem Bannaite, ne bootode naite. Hello, my name is Tsoo’wo Naibi, which is the name my grandfather Albert Ballard gave to me. I’m also known as Nikki McDaid, I am from the Shoshone-Bannock nation of Fort Hall, Idaho and I’m also Paiute.
JORDAN MANGI: Nikki is a Ph.D. candidate in learning sciences at NU and a research assistant on the ISTEAM project. To develop Indigenous-centered learning environments, they said researchers for ISTEAM build relationships with communities and create the curriculum alongside community members.
NIKKI MCDAID: They say, “What is it that we want our kids to learn?” And sometimes that’s in alignment with what educational systems in the mainstream culture also want for kids, and a lot of times they’re things that go well beyond that. And so we’re talking about our kids’ spiritual and emotional health, we’re talking about our kids’ physical health, we’re talking about our kids’ intellectual health.
JORDAN MANGI: This cooperation between researchers and community members is called —
NIKKI MCDAID: The community-based design project. You design things with community, then you analyze the data. Then you make data-informed decisions to redesign the project again.
JORDAN MANGI: Forrest Bruce is a learning sciences Ph.D. candidate who’s also a research assistant on the project. He said community involvement is intentional.
FORREST BRUCE: We’re engaging Indigenous families and communities to come up with the things that they want their children to be learning, because historically, education has been something that has extracted children from their families, from their communities and from land — and so ISTEAM is intentionally integrating, or reintegrating, those things.
JORDAN MANGI: The goal of these learning environments? First and foremost, that they’re rooted in Indigenous ways of knowing. Then, connections are made to the Western science education kids get in school.
NIKKI MCDAID: That means that we’re engaging in everyday activities that are situated in thinking about respect, relationships, reciprocity and our roles in communities. And people will call those, like, “The four Rs.”
JORDAN MANGI: But what exactly do these environments look like?
FORREST BRUCE: What it is essentially is that it’s a STEAM camp, which is a common program that a lot of kids go to science camp. So it’s like that, but it’s totally rooted in Indigenous ways of knowing and being.
JORDAN MANGI: Essentially, researchers create a weeklong summer camp for indigenous kids and their families where they can build relationships with nature. These camps are entirely outdoors.
FORREST BRUCE: You know, it’s pretty radically different than what traditional classroom-based education is. Usually when kids go outside, it’s for recess; you know, outdoors isn’t something where intellectual learning can happen. But here at ISTEAM, all of our learning and curriculum — it’s all place-based, and it all takes place outside.
JORDAN MANGI: And that means that for the duration of the camp, the researchers are outside all day too.
FORREST BRUCE: It’s exhausting, like, being outside for eight hours a day — probably more like 10 hours — running around with a bunch of little ones. But it really also just gives you a lot of life and a lot of hope for the future.
JORDAN MANGI: Participants aren’t just kids, either. The program is intergenerational, meaning all ages are welcome.
NIKKI MCDAID: We had all sorts of age groups show up and participate. So we, in Chicago this last time, had, like, an 8-month-old there, and we also had an 80-year-old grandfather hanging out with us several times. And we recognize that learning is something that happens throughout the life course, so everybody who’s there is a learner and a teacher.
JORDAN MANGI: The reason the program is outdoors, Nikki explained, is that the education is land- and water-based. It sits —
NIKKI MCDAID: — land as our teacher. Education looks different when you come to it with land as a partner, than land as an organism (or) some abstract thing that’s not related to us. And so that relations piece is important. Like when we talk about relationships, we mean between human actors, (and) we also mean between all of the actors in the ecosystem.
JORDAN MANGI: This isn’t how most STEAM summer camps operate. Using this framework, both researchers and participants can center indigenous knowledge.
NIKKI MCDAID: We are kin from an Indigenous point of view — we are family and relatives. Which is a different way into science than coming at it, as in “I am this person who’s separate from nature, maybe superior to nature as well, and I’m looking down at nature, trying to understand it.” It’s like well, actually, humans are this younger species, who doesn’t know anything, and we are trying to learn from observing what already is.
JORDAN MANGI: While program participants spend time learning from nature, researchers collect data on their interactions, drawing from video footage and interviews with students. One undergraduate research assistant, Weinberg junior Christine Potermin, spends most of her time watching videos taken from the camps. Her job is to translate those videos into data.
CHRISTINE POTERMIN: I literally just sit there, watch the videos and then fill out a massive spreadsheet about, like, different characteristics of the video, how many people were in the video, description of, like, what happened. And then I go through checking boxes about all different kinds of learning sciences frameworks that were present in the video.
JORDAN MANGI: The categories Christine assigns to each video include instances where a student mentions a relationship, a plant relative or responsibility relating to nature.
CHRISTINE POTERMIN: I’m working on this, especially right now, examining the physical structure of participants. And so, are they in a circle? Are they talking to each other, like, face to face? Who’s leading the group? So things that we might not always think about in our day-to-day lives, but are actually really important to the way that we learn.
JORDAN MANGI: And the research extends beyond just behaviors of the students.
NIKKI MCDAID: We’re doing that kind of work in the field, but we’re also, like, teaching the whole time and we’re also looking at, like, how is our teaching shifting over time? And how can we be better pedagogues, in addition to what the kids are learning?
JORDAN MANGI: In addition to studying teaching, Nikki and Forrest are both completing their own projects based on data and outcomes of the ISTEAM research. Nikki’s looks at the relationship between one child, Talon, and one plant, stinging nettle.
NIKKI MCDAID: Basically, I’m finding that Talon and Nettle have a more familial kinship-based relationship over time. Talon starts to talk to nettle as if nettle is his relative, calls the nettle “the nettle people,” says hi to nettle and then gets excited whenever he sees nettle, those sorts of things. And that’s a big shift from at the start of camp where he was like, “Nettle is a plant that hurts.”
JORDAN MANGI: From 2014 to 2019, at ISTEAM camp, Talon developed a relationship with nettle, learning about its healing properties and how to treat nettle stings. He passed on this knowledge to other students in the program and branched out to relationship-building with other plants, like huckleberry. Nikki’s research looks at how kinship with plants will affect environmental decision making over time.
NIKKI MCDAID: And my idea is that when we care about plants more — which we do when they are our family members — that we’ll make better environmental decisions. And that’s something that is kind of like my overall research paradigm over time is like you know if we’re thinking about plants as our kin, will we make better decisions about the environment in general?
JORDAN MANGI: While Nikki studies plans kinship, Forrest’s project is looking at relationships between the participants and water.
FORREST BRUCE: At the time of the program, which was in 2019, which is where my data is from, there was a dam removal that was downstream from the river, and so we, you know, we talked about, like, this dam removal happening currently , how will that change the ecosystem here? The kids set fish traps in the river and speculated, like, “Okay, these are the fish that we see here now. If we come back next year, what fish will be here? What about in five years, 50 years?”
JORDAN MANGI: Forrest’s project is examining the shift in how students interacted with the river at the beginning versus at the end of the weeklong program.
FORREST BRUCE: On the first day, most of the activity was focused on the bank. There weren’t a whole lot of people stepping into the water or onto the rocks, but by the last day of activity, pretty much the entire group was in the river . And so I’m thinking about what that physical closeness to the river, how that shapes our thinking about, and also our relationship with, water.
JORDAN MANGI: Forrest, who’s Ojibwe, said that aside from relationships with nature, the ISTEAM camps also build connections between kids who might not otherwise be in community with other Indigenous kids or families.
FORREST BRUCE: A lot of these kids are the only Natives in their high school or in their school and so it’s really important to have an educational space where they’re surrounded with other Natives. I went to a high school on a reservation for a few years, and so I had that for a while, but then I think most of my experience in schooling wasn’t like that — I was the only Native kid in school, and it sucks So yeah, I do think that these kinds of spaces are important.
JORDAN MANGI: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Jordan Mangi. Thanks for listening to another episode of Brainstorm. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Lucia Barnum, the digital managing editors are Will Clark and Katrina Pham, and the editor in chief is Jacob Fulton. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.
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