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The Importance of STEM Initiatives to Indigenous American Communities

Every child should have the freedom to dream big. At the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), it’s been our mission to encourage Indigenous children to not only dream big in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), but to make those dreams a reality.

The current, and increasing, underrepresentation of Indigenous people in STEM is cause for national concern because it deprives our nation of the potential for innovation and transformative solutions arising from a diverse STEM workforce (Corbett & Hill, 2015; National Academies, 2011). Further, research suggests diverse voices, such as those of Indigenous learners and professionals, contribute to creative and critical STEM enterprise of problem solving (Page, 2007; Spencer & Dawes, 2009). Equally, it is morally imperative to support all individuals, including Indigenous men and women, and Indigenous two-spirit and LGBTQIA+ individuals, who wish to pursue STEM education and careers.

Too many bright and talented Indigenous students at all levels encounter challenges academically for a multitude of reasons. Working with its partners, AISES creates brighter futures for them by ensuring equal access to STEM educational programming, closing gender and learning gaps, placing a premium on diversity, and improving access to essential support services and resources. And while encouraging Indigenous students to pursue STEM studies because today’s fastest growing, most in-demand jobs are in STEM fields, the skills and principles acquired through STEM education are equally important for those looking to create and manage businesses of their own someday.

For over 40 years, AISES has been committed to substantially increasing the number of Indigenous people in STEM studies and careers. AISES’ three key focus areas are student success, career support, and workforce development. In the advancement of our mission, AISES works with exceptional Indigenous students who all too often face educational and economic inequalities. As such, AISES offers programming and resources to encourage, guide, and fund Indigenous students on their pathway into a STEM field. Upon completion of their STEM degree or certification, AISES continues to provide supportive programming and resources as well as access to the nation’s largest network of individuals and institutions dedicated to supporting the ongoing career development and advancement of Indigenous people in STEM fields.

In 2017, AISES launched a STEM and Business initiative to expand opportunities and provide resources for AISES members who want to combine their interest in STEM with starting or expanding a business within their own tribal communities. Since then, AISES has engaged hundreds of students and professionals by delivering sessions at its annual conference, creating a cohort of individuals for entrepreneurship training and mentorship, and providing start-up capital to program participants. To support this work, AISES partners with allies who are also committed to providing resources to help grow and expand the numbers of Indigenous STEM students and professionals. One such collaboration is with the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

With support of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, AISES STEM and Business program is delivering an entrepreneurship training initiative to (1) expand access to the AISES STEM and Business curriculum via AISES microsite along with outreach and promotion of these resources to the entire AISES network; (2) create a 10-person STEM and Business cohort and recruitment of 5 professional mentors; (3) conduct a three-part series of STEM and Business trainings, two in-person trainings hosted in conjunction with AISES events and one virtual training; and (4) award mini-grants to support Indigenous STEM Business development.

Thanks to partners like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, AISES has enabled many Indigenous people to develop businesses. It’s helped grow tribal enterprises, and supported tribal communities as they strive toward economic independence and the assertion of tribal sovereignty. Now more than ever, it is essential for AISES to further expand our partnerships to create more opportunities for Indigenous youth and young professionals seeking careers in STEM fields. It is time to make Indigenous STEM representation a priority as a critical component of the larger global effort to develop the most innovative solutions to today’s most pressing problems and issues. Together, AISES and its partners are creating those opportunities – and I hope you too will join us.


Sarah Echohawk is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, and is CEO of AISES.