Native STEAM Camp

On a Thursday morning last July, young campers tramped up the bluff and down to the beach at Discovery Park. On the way, three boys, aged ten to twelve, pretended to be different parts of the ecosystem around them.

“I’m a sword fern,” said one.
“I’m a crabapple tree!”
“I’m a big leaf maple.”
“I’m a magical dolphin and a big leaf maple!” They broke into giggles, then started imagining environmental challenges for one another until they got to the beach.

In another group, one camper had been hesitant to participate in camp activities, but this morning, he had been named the group leader. On the walk to the beach, he pretended to be a sword fern. Sword ferns’ big leaves provide protection and shade for smaller plants, one of the camp leaders had explained. On the walk, every so often, he raised his arms in arcs, miming the shape of a fern, and checked on the “smaller plants” his group.

These children were part of the Native Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) Summer Camp. The camp brought approximately 35 young people to the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center in Seattle from July 27 to 31, 2015.

The camp encouraged these young people to deeply observe their surroundings and think about their own roles in the interconnected ecosystem. The curriculum drew from and celebrated indigenous ways of knowing.

The Native STEAM Summer Camp is a project of the Institute for Science + Math Education, the UW College of Education, Red Eagle Soaring and Sealaska. The camp is part of the larger Expansive Meanings and Makings in ArtScience (EMMAS) project supported by the National Science Foundation, led by Principal Investigator and UW Associate Professor of Education Megan Bang. Several of Bang's graduate students and community collaborators participated in the project including Megan McGinty, Priya Pugh, Gabe de los Angeles, Charlene Nolan, Joh Howard, Jeanette Bushnell, Alice Tsoodle, Brett Ramey, Lawrence Curley and Tess Gamez.

Native Foundations

A pedagogical commitment of the program is to engage Native stories, or, as PI Bang said, “Making sure our kids are thinking with our stories and being guided by them.” For example, throughout the Native STEAM Summer Camp, participants discussed the concept of “putting Raven back together again.”

Early in the week, S’Klallam storyteller Roger Fernandes told campers this story, which describes the time humans became so fed up with the mischievous Raven that they had him thrown off of a cliff, and Raven shattered into pieces. However, their actions had unintended consequences, as the land began to dry up. Humans had to scramble to put Raven back together and bring the water back. The camp engaged children in “thinking with this story” to explore human-caused environmental problems and drought.

“We’re focusing on the question of: How do we live reciprocal, responsible and relational ways of understanding our waters, our lands and our communities?” said graduate researcher Charlene Nolan. The camp integrates elements of Western science, “but the focus is on Native ways of knowing, which focus on relationship building,” Nolan said.

Gossiping Clams

Once they got to the beach, the campers scrambled over the rocks, each discovering beach “relatives,” the term the camp used to emphasize our relationships to different species. At the beach, the campers had the opportunity to run and discover, but also to reflect and look more closely at this important ecosystem.

“Oh wow, I found a sun star!”
“It’s a bunch of anemones on one rock!”
Bang crouched next to the excited kids, gathering them to share what they had found. “Look how much diversity we found in this one little spot!” she exclaimed.

The campers then broke up into small activities. In one, they used soil sieves to sift through sand, looking closely at what was living under the surface. At another, they dug deep into the shore for clams. Solo or in teams, the campers dug on their knees, scooping furiously. It was a hands-on experience.

“Remember the story Roger told us about clams?” Bang asked some of the campers, tying this experience to indigenous knowledge. Fernandes had also told a story about clams that once walked above ground, gossiping mercilessly. Fed up, Raven stomped on the clams until they were trapped under the sand. Now, every time the clams try to gossip, they spit out water and sand, a reminder to humans to use our words carefully.

Community Need

The genesis for the Native STEAM Camp builds on Bang’s long-term work in multiple Native communities. Bang’s work has engaged in what she calls “community-based design,” which engages community members in identifying needs as well as approaches to developing learning environments. Bang engaged community leaders and families in Western Washington in developing the local program.

“(We) realized that there’s not a lot of youth programming that’s science-oriented … especially for urban Native kids,” said Nolan. “We designed this camp with that need in mind.”

Bang and her team of graduate researchers worked with a variety of content experts, from storytellers to marine biologists, to shape the camp’s curriculum. From this work, the Native STEAM Summer Camp began in the summer of 2014.

The UW Institute for Science + Math Education team is not only helping put on the camp, but is also studying the curriculum in a process called “community-based design research.” Researchers study videos and camper work to see how the campers respond to curriculum, and use that information to shape future instruction. The team is also studying the impact of the camp curriculum on young people’s ways of thinking and knowing.

“When we develop and study learning environments, we are working towards repairing the historical trend of taking educational decisions away from Native people. We’re rebuilding our own pedagogical best practices that view our ways of knowing as the strengths and starting points of learning,” said Bang.

Learning by LARPing

One of the questions Bang’s team is investigating is how campers are affected when they engage in “perspective taking” or put themselves in the “shoes” of other organisms, and how that influences how young people see connections in the environment. The boys walking to the beach pretending to be big leaf maples (or dolphins) were engaging in perspective taking.

On the walk leaving the beach, graduate researcher Megan McGinty and a group of boys were talking about their morning. One, Aaron, is a smaller, imaginative boy who was fascinated by the crabs at the beach.

“Imagine, what would it be like to be a little crab?” McGinty asked Aaron.
“Terrifying,” said one of his friends.
Aaron agreed. “Big crabs would be scary.”
“Bugs would look like planes!” his friend added.

Perspective taking is a pedagogical strategy used throughout the camp in a variety of ways. The camp very explicitly designed for this through the use of live-action role-play, or LARPing. Later in the day, some of the campers form small groups to LARP as local plants and animals. In one group, a boy was standing by himself, arms outstretched. Then he flopped down in the grass. “What are you doing?” asked graduate researcher Priya Pugh. “Dying and becoming a nurse log,” he explained.

Through these activities, the camp encourages young people to see their roles in their environments, to empathize and identify with other living things, and to see the interconnectedness of an entire ecosystem. Bang’s research has explored how this kind of perspective taking has measurable impacts on how children reason about the natural world and approach problem solving.

Integrating Ways of Knowing

Throughout, the camp also gives young people the opportunity to connect different disciplines and ways of knowing. The Native STEAM Summer Camp combines the traditional STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math with the arts. In the afternoon, campers worked with clay to create pieces of pottery, using leaves or plants to make impressions and designs in their artwork.

Filiberto Barajas, an assistant professor at the UW who focuses on math education, led this aspect of the camp. He integrated key math concepts in the development of the students' pottery pieces. The campers also examined the clay they found at the beach, learned about related geological processes, and discussed how this beach clay differed from their pottery clay. The pottery projects reflect how, in Native ways of knowing, domain divisions in school are integrated. Science, math, literacy, the arts and other disciplines are intertwined, which can lead to rigorous and rich experiences for learners.

“Often Native ways of knowing are relegated to the past and not seen as relevant to things like science and math,” said Bang. “In our view, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Deeply engaging the cultural foundations of teaching and learning in subject-specific ways is critical to improving Native students achievement and well-being.”

Related Resource

Indigenous Education Tools is a collection of resources created by Megan Bang and her team to improve Native student success.

This story originally appeared on the Institute for Science + Math Education website and was written by Abby Rhinehart.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications


Abby Rhinehart, Communications Specialist, UW Institute for Science + Math Education