The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a significant grant to the Native American Astronomy Outreach Program of Lowell Observatory earlier this month. The grant will help spread the unique science education program to the Kayenta Unified School District.
For nearly a quarter century, program co-founder Deidre Hunter and a dozen other Lowell Observatory have been bringing common core, next generation sciences, and Navajo tribal standards together to educate students of the Navajo and Hopi Nations of Northern Arizona.
“The goal of the Native American Astronomy Outreach Program is to help teachers get kids excited about science,” says Hunter. “We work with 5th through 8th grade teachers on the Navajo and Hopi Nations. I match an astronomer with a teacher for one year. During the course of that year the astronomer goes out to the classroom and does hands-on astronomy activities with the teacher and the class.”
The full program is a mixture of classroom science experiments, and outdoor observing of the night sky.
“The astronomers host star parties at night” Hunter explains. “Then, in the spring, they can bring the class on a field trip to Lowell Observatory to observe on our research telescopes.”
The Native American Astronomy Outreach program was founded in 1996, when Hunter was noticing a lack of diversity in the field of astronomy.
“Minorities need not only to be shown that science is fun and exciting, but they need to be able to see themselves as as scientists,” says Hunter. “That isn’t always automatic.”
Hunter and her team bring cultural connections into the curriculum by mixing Navajo and Hopi ways of life into the science projects.
An example of this culturally rich curriculum is a study of the sand dunes on Mars that is then related back to the issue of desertification of the Navajo reservation, which is affecting the many farming families of the area.
“We’re weaving it throughout the units, so that the students see that what they’re studying is relevant to them, their lives,” explains Hunter. “It just makes the impact of the curriculum much more immediate to them.”
Hunter believes having diversity in the sciences is important to evolving revolutionary ideas.
“Minorities can bring their talents and different perspectives to the fields of science,” says Hunter. “That kind of thing can lead to breakthroughs.”
As the Native American Astronomy Outreach Program begins its twenty second year, they look forward to another successful school year of new curriculum with the help of sponsors Arizona Public Service Company, the Flagstaff Arts Council, NSF, and many more.