Historically, Native American students in Alaska have been among the lowest-performing in the nation. But one group in the state is seeking to better prepare students for careers in STEM fields through a consistent instruction from middle school through college.
The Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP) started in 1995 with one student and the goal of drawing more Alaska Natives to study science and engineering at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. Since then, 300 students have graduated as a result of the program.
"We built this continuous stream so they're continuously engaged from fifth grade, all the way through the Ph.D.," says Herb Schroeder, founder and vice provost of ANSEP. "The data we have shows our program is many times better than the national average for all students, not just minority students."
Federal data shows there has been little progress to close the gap between Native and Non-Native students in recent years. In 2012, for example, 79 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students performed at or below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared with 75 percent of Hispanic students and just 48 percent of white students. And between 2006 and 2012, the score gap between Native American students and white students actually increased from 21 to 24 points, showing that white students improved while American Indian and Alaska Native students declined slightly. The score gaps between other ethnic groups decreased in that time.
The ANSEP program provides an opportunity for students interested in science and engineering to live on campus for two to eight weeks (depending on the grade-level program) while taking courses and getting hands-on training from professional scientists and engineers.
While just 4 percent of minority students graduate from high school prepared to study engineering in college. Schroeder says the ANSEP programs are designed to accelerate that process and ensure the students achieve far more than what they would typically complete in school.
Nationwide, for example, 26 percent of students complete Algebra 1 before finishing eighth grade. By comparison, 83 percent of students who participate in ANSEP's Middle School Academy do so, and those who continue through ANSEP's high school Acceleration Academy complete Calculus 2, or sometimes Calculus 3 -- all before their first day of college, says Michael Bourdukofsky, ANSEP's chief operating officer.
"It's an opportunity to work with students, not just for one single summer and then hope they make it and survive, but year after year after year," Bourdukofsky says. "I think that where the education system as a whole has some issues, is that they have these chunks...and they expect students to just make that transition, just by focusing at each of those individual levels." "There needs to be a better streamline process for getting a student successfully from middle school to high school and from high school into college," he adds.
But another problem facing minority students -- aside from economic and social disadvantages -- is a "systematic subjugation" that subtly pushes minority students, as well as women, away from science and engineering fields, Schroeder says.
"It's funny to me to sit and watch the whole country going, 'What are we going to do about this?' when you've got teachers telling kids they're not capable," Schroeder says. "What's the difference? Women are pre-programmed to not do it? Come on.")
Currently, women make up about one-quarter of the STEM workforce, according to a Department of Commerce report. And in 2013, women earned just 19 percent of engineering bachelor's degrees, 26 percent of math and computer science degrees, and 38 percent of physical science degrees, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
Schroeder says the ANSEP program consciously recruits the same number of boys and girls to its middle school program, and pointed out that women now make up about 40 percent of the students in STEM programs at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.
Corrected, 1/22/2014: An earlier version of this story mentioned the number of engineering and science degrees awarded by the University of Alaska at Anchorage from 1995 to 2013. The statistic refers to degrees awarded to Alaska Natives only.