Mapping the Course for Montana Native American Students in STEM

Students participate in the first cohort of the Montana American Indian Math and Science Program (MT-AIMS) at UM. Photo via UM News Service.

By Christina Henderson

A two-week program for 7th and 8th graders taught by faculty at the University of Montana this June offered hands-on activities designed to get students excited about STEM fields. The 20 campers – a majority from Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation in Browning and five from the Navajo Nation – made up the first cohort of the donor-funded Montana American Indian Math and Science Program (MT-AIMS).

Over the first three days, kids built their own computer – which they got to take home at the end of the camp if they pledged to finish Algebra I by the end of 8th grade.

Campers learned to code Python to fly drones, gained engineering skills by building bridges, and explored biology with specimens collected from the Clark Fork River. The middle schoolers also got a taste of college life— sleeping in dorms, eating in the Food Zoo, and hiking the M trail just off-campus.

Dr. Aaron Thomas, associate professor of chemistry and director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education at the University of Montana, modeled MT-AIMS after a successful program in Alaska to expose students to concepts “a step beyond what they’ve learned in the classroom or learned in books.”

“The goal was to give them an idea of STEM as something they could do in the future,” Thomas said. “To see themselves studying aquatic insects or forestry. Planting seeds for things they could do down the road.”

The UM program is intended not only to help fill a vital workforce need in Montana, but also to address the underrepresentation of Native Americans in STEM fields.

Aaron Thomas, associate professor of chemistry and director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education at UM, circulates among MT-AIMS students. Photo via UM News Service.

MT-AIMS is a multi-year program that maps out a course for Native American students to learn higher-level STEM skills all the way from middle school through college. Thomas saw the need for a program that began in middle school to address challenges faced by Native college students he works with at the University of Montana.

In his role as director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education, one of Thomas’ goals is to increase the number of Native students completing graduate STEM degrees. He saw that many were arriving on campus without the math and science skills they needed to be successful as undergrads. Native students often had to take remedial math and science courses to catch up, using up their PELL grant money and reducing the likelihood that they would major in STEM fields or complete their degrees at all.

Thomas believes that the MT-AIMS summer camp will address these needs on several fronts.

“I think it fills a gap of one: providing a belief in these students that they can do science and math,” Thomas said. “It encourages them to do well in their science and math courses when they go back to school. It also creates a community among the students as the cohort works to succeed as a group. And it incorporates indigenous ways of knowing into science and math.”


Following a Successful Model in Alaska

Thomas modeled the program on the long-running Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) designed by Dr. Herb Schroeder.

Due to the ANSEP program’s success, the National Science Foundation funded a conference in January 2018 that brought nine teams from across the country to Alaska to learn their model. The Montana High Tech Business Alliance was represented as part of a five-person team from Montana.

In addition to Thomas, also attending were Melanie Magee, College Readiness Coordinator at Browning Public Schools on the Blackfeet Reservation, Marci Bozeman, Director of Development for Humanities and Sciences, and Jenny McNulty, Interim Dean of the UM College of Humanities and Sciences.

Schroeder shared the program’s history at the conference.

In the 1990s, Schroeder was a young professor at the University of Alaska, working on sanitation projects in remote regions of the state. At that time, there were 104 “honey bucket villages” without running water or plumbing in Alaska. The lack of sanitation caused high infant mortality and a host of diseases.

Schroeder saw that cultural differences were causing communication problems between white sanitation engineers and native villages. He thought that if Native Alaskans were trained as engineers, they could return home and solve the problems faced by their communities.

Schroeder took this idea back to the university, and over the next 20 years, by trial and error, he built ANSEP.

Participants in ANSEP Middle School Academy can attend free-of-charge and experience hands-on activities. Photo via ANSEP.

Before ANSEP, the University of Alaska had graduated very few Native students with STEM degrees. Today, more than 300 Alaska Native students have graduated with STEM bachelor’s degrees, and there are about 2,500 students currently in ANSEP programs, ranging from sixth graders to PhD candidates.

Two ANSEP alumni earned PhDs and are now the first Native professors to teach engineering at the University of Alaska.

Changing the Future for Montana’s Native Students through STEM Education

Like Alaska, Montana has a large population of Native American students and a wide achievement gap in STEM. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, nationally, American Indians represent about one percent of the K-12 student population. In Montana, it’s 14 percent according to data from the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI).

OPI also found that In 2016, only 25 percent of Montana American Indians enrolled in college in the Montana University System withing 16 months of graduating, compared to 46 percent of non-Natives. Only a small percentage of Native students go into STEM fields.

When Native students do start college at UM, about half of them are underprepared for college math and have to take remedial courses, Thomas said. Only 30 percent of students in remediation will go on to complete their degree.

Organizers say that over the next six years, this first class of MT-AIMS students will be invited to return to the university each summer for more advanced coursework, putting them on track to successfully meet math and science requirements in high school and enter college prepared to major in STEM fields. Future cohorts of Native students will be invited to follow the trail the pilot group is blazing.

“The first cohort started in one community, but we want to expand to all Montana communities that have native populations,” Thomas said.

With the efforts of programs like MT-AIMS and ANSEP, future generations of Native American and Alaska Native students will have the opportunity to learn advanced STEM skills, complete their degrees, and bring their knowledge back to tribal communities to solve real problems.

For more information on how to support MT AIMS, contact Aaron Thomas at

About the Author: Christina Quick Henderson is Executive Director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship, management and organizational behavior in the College of Business at the University of Montana.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an nonpartisan nonprofit association of more than 370 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information, visit or subscribe to our biweekly newsletter.

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