Wayne State University

Wayne State researcher aims to make STEM education more accessible to Native American students

Detroit – Underrepresented minorities comprise approximately 30 percent of the U.S. population, but only 10 percent are college educated in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Native Americans (and Aboriginal Canadians) are the least represented minority group in higher education and are poorly represented in STEM fields at all levels.

A  Wayne State University study recently funded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) aims to change these statistics. According to Maria Pontes Ferreira, Ph.D., R.D. assistant professor of Nutrition and Food Science in WSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of the study, targeting underrepresented minorities will help increase trainee numbers in STEM programs and change the face of STEM.

While attracting and retaining Native Americans has remained elusive due to a perceived lack of cultural relevance and/or support for STEM, Ferreira believes there is a way to break down this barrier.

“Native youth are taught to respect elders, and many elders are ‘keepers of traditional knowledge’ which interfaces with science,” said Ferreira. “Linking elders to postsecondary STEM education for Natives will improve perceptions of STEM as culturally relevant and culturally supportive of Natives, and impact Native student interest, pursuit and endurance in STEM careers.”

With $20,000 grant support from AAAS, Ferreira and her collaborators, Fidji Gendron, Ph.D. from the First Nations University of Canada, and Tanya Dahms, Ph.D. from the University of Regina, will embark on a research study that aims to determine if the presence of elders in a course make STEM more accessible and beneficial to Native/Aboriginal students. 

Two courses on Evidence-Based Ethnomedicine: Plants & Culture will be offered to students; one will include elders as traditional knowledge instructors alongside STEM Ph.D.’s and the other will not include elders.

“We expect to see higher learning outcomes and student interest in STEM, along with improved student perception of cultural relevance and supportiveness in those Native students taking the course with elders present,” said Ferreira. “In addition, this study may lead to a revitalization of the traditional role of elders in the education of Native students, specifically at the postsecondary level.”

Even broader impacts are expected from this study, according to the research team. They hope to discover STEM talent through teaching underrepresented minorities and training women, while promoting STEM education. They also hope their project will integrate and advance science, education, policy and technology across cultures, particularly with the Native community.


Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information about research at Wayne State University, visit http://www.research.wayne.edu.