in Teaching Strategies

How to Incorporate STEAM Learning in Lessons About Native American Culture

November is often a time to discuss Native American tribes and their relation to modern society, whether teachers are introducing the lesson as part of Native American Heritage Month or tying the concepts into Thanksgiving activities. 

Fortunately, many lessons about American Indians have moved beyond hand turkeys and teepee drawings. Many educators are using this topic to present the cultures of local tribes and broach uncomfortable topics about how they are treated. 

Follow this guide to take a modern approach to teach about Native Americans while incorporating STEAM concepts into your lessons.   

Discuss the Terminology and Names Related to Your Lessons

Regardless of whether you are a kindergarten teacher introducing the concept of Native American culture, or a high school teacher looking to challenge your students, it is important to be mindful of the terms you use to address Indigenous people.

As you develop lesson plans related to Native Americans, your resources will likely cover a variety of names, from Indigenous people to American Indians. Educators need to be respectful, but often have trouble ascertaining exactly how to properly address local tribes. And it’s not just teachers who are struggling.

The editorial board at Native Sun News Today challenged names and labels in current use. They explain that the term “Native American” was developed by “a bunch of white newspaper editors trying to find a way to describe Indians that Indians would not find offensive,” and how even the name of the Sioux was a non-politically-correct misnomer when first coined. Similarly, in an effort to be respectful, some educators tend to overcorrect.

But there’s help. Native Circle, a Native American educational site, created a list of words that shouldn’t be used in reference to Native American cultures. Also, the company Indigenous Corporate Training, which was founded by Bob Joseph, an Indigenous person and member of the Gwawaenuk Nation, created guidelines for name usage which breaks down terms like First Nation, Native, Indian, and Aboriginal Peoples. The guide also explains when these terms can be used and when people should be cautious. While their guide is Canada-specific, there is significant overlap for American culture. 

Often, the terminology used is determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the group you are addressing and how they specifically would like to be addressed. People in your area might ask you to call them Native Americans, while others in a different state prefer something else.

Along with understanding the terminology around Indigenous groups, it is also important to be mindful of how you frame your lessons. 

Amy Labrasciano, a second grade teacher, provides several resources for educators of young learners to introduce topics related to Native American history in the classroom. She leads with tips and advice for handling the subject in a sensitive manner, encouraging teachers to discuss tribes in the present tense, not exclusively in the past. By talking about cultures and the traditions of today, you can keep history alive, and invite any students who come from those families to share.

That said, there is a significant difference between inviting students to share their heritage and singling them out. As fifth grade teacher Jenifer Bazzit says: “Do not call on Native children to speak on their cultures or share their experiences. They may be uncomfortable discussing their tribe’s rituals or they simply may not know enough about their cultures to share.” 

Individual States Offer Native American Lesson Plans

One of the best things you can do when developing STEAM lessons for Native American subjects is to keep the lessons hyper-local. 

Ashley Simmons, an education programs assistant at Population Connection, uses the example of the Lakota people of South Dakota protesting the construction of the Keystone Pipeline in 2017. Discussing the values of local Native American people in connection with civics and environmental decisions can provide context into why lessons are important and the role of people in science and technology initiatives.    

Fortunately, many states provide resources for educators that were developed by Indigenous groups. For example, the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs created a resource guide called Nuu-ciu Strong for 4th-grade students to learn about the Ute People. It covers a variety of topics related to the government, cultural structures, and people of the Ute tribe.

The Ohio History Connection promotes its Museum in a Box kits which provide resources and items related to First Ohioans and Tribes of the Ohio River Valley. If you are based in Ohio, you can use these kits directly, or challenge your students to create a digital museum by building web pages or online resources to help others in your community learn. Many of these state-based lessons can be updated for the STEAM classroom.    

These resources come at a time when educators, parents, and school districts are taking steps to bring light to the uncomfortable and unjust history of how Indigenous people in the U.S. were treated. For example, representatives from Native American groups in California have been pushing for more inclusion and accuracy in lesson plans for several decades.

“For so many years, the story of California Indians has never really been part of classrooms,” says Rose Borunda, department chair at California State University, Sacramento. “Our story has never been present. It’s often sidestepped because it’s inconvenient. But it’s the truth, and students should learn it.”

By working with their state governments to provide lesson plans, Native American groups can make sure their stories are told on their terms. 

Tying Indigenous People to Modern STEAM Advancement

State-provided resources and local Indigenous cultural centers are a great place to start when developing lesson plans, but the next step is to make sure these lessons have a STEAM focus, or tie into your existing coursework. There are plenty of online ideas and resources for doing this. 

You can tie lessons about Native Americans to other history topics related to science, technology, and innovation. For example, of the thousands of inventions by Indigenous cultures still in use today, the 10 best known include hypodermic needles, baby bottles, and even bunk beds, writes Vincent Schilling at Indian Country Today.

A great lesson-planning resource is Animikii, a Canadian-based company that helps Indigenous-focused organizations make their impact through technology. The Animikii team recently shared a list of women from North American tribes, all in tech, some entrepreneurs and filmmakers, other working at companies like IBM and Facebook.

Environmental lessons are a natural fit with those about Indigenous culture. That’s because Indigenous knowledge, also known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), combines with modern technology to drive environmental change, writes Jesse Popp, Canada research chair in Indigenous Environmental Science. 

“[TEK] is essentially the cumulative body of knowledge associated with ecological relationships, which is handed down through generations by Indigenous people,” she explains. “[It] has already provided insight into environmental change, wildlife population monitoring, sustainable harvesting practices, behavioural ecology, ecological relationships, and so much more.”  

Tying Native American culture to modern technology and innovation is a way to learn about these tribes and engage students from Indigenous backgrounds. Native Americans account for just 0.4 percent of the country’s engineering bachelor’s degrees, although they make up 1.2 percent of the U.S. population.

“Native American and Alaska Native students are the least represented minority population in the STEM disciplines,” explains Aaron Thomas, director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education at the University of Montana. “Native people offer a unique perspective in these fields that will help bring innovative ideas in a diversified workforce.” His goal is to create more pathways to STEM higher education for Native American students.

By discussing Native American culture or history in your math, science, or technology-based classroom, you are keeping the role of Indigenous people in our society alive and encouraging students to see themselves as scientists and engineers — giving them an identity alongside their heritage.

Resource for STEAM-Focused Native American Lesson Plans

There are a few additional places to look for ideas on incorporating Native American history into your STEAM classroom.

The Library of Congress works with other federal organizations to host a website celebrating Native American Heritage Month in November. You can browse resources based on the subject, with information by the National Gallery of Art and lessons from the National Park Service.     

Native Knowledge 360° is another useful page for introducing Native American history through tech. This is a program developed by the National Museum of the American Indian through the Smithsonian with the goal of providing “educators and students with new perspectives on Native American history and cultures.” There are lessons and resources for students, as well as training materials to better help teachers introduce the material.  

Nichole Thomas, a technology resource teacher at Liberty Elementary School in Virginia, shared a great lesson plan where students can develop models of Native American homes and then use 3D printing tools to turn their designs into a reality. 

This can be adapted for any K-5 classroom, and use architecture development tools or simple drawings of Indigenous homes. This is also a lesson plan that you can tie closely to the people in your region, and their specific adaptations to the climate or environment. 

You don’t need a 3D printer in your classroom to try the next STEAM-focused lesson. The designers at Evan-Moor Educational Publishers have a classroom activity to build a Native American shelter. It has students draw pictures of homes and then examine the natural resources provided or collected by them (such as plant stems, leaves, and pieces of leather). The lesson can be completed in groups and across several days, depending on your class or schedule.

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