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STEM Empowerment: VCSU's INSTEM Program Unites Native American Youth

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First, we journey to Valley City State University (VCSU), where the Great Plains STEM Education Center hosts an innovative program called INSTEM. This initiative, aimed at Native American middle and high school students from North Dakota, offers week-long summer STEM academies. We hear from Dr. Jamie Wirth and student Jayna Lockwood about their experiences and the impact of INSTEM, shedding light on the importance of integrating Indigenous students into STEM fields.

Then, the focus shifts to the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, as Tom Brosseau speaks with Edward O'Keefe, the CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. O'Keefe, transitioning from a career in media, discusses Roosevelt's progressive views, personal relationships, and the significance of storytelling in preserving history. Highlighting the goals of the library and insights from his book, "The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt," the conversation explores Roosevelt's enduring impact and the unifying power of historical narratives. This episode not only celebrates educational initiatives like INSTEM but also underscores the importance of understanding and honoring our historical figures.

And Rick Gion talks Fish Fries in the newest Prairie Plates.


Valley City State University hosts Native American students for in-depth STEM training. We learn about INSTEM (Indians into STEM, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with VCSU's Dr. Jamie Wirth, and Jayna Lockwood, one of the students.

Interview Highlights: Full Transcript Below

Impact of INSTEM Program: Through INSTEM, students develop leadership skills, gain exposure to college life, and form connections with peers who share similar interests. Jayna highlights how the program helps her navigate new environments and lead conversations, enhancing her confidence and ability to connect with others.

  • Focus on Self-Efficacy and Exploration: Dr. Jamie Wirth emphasizes that while INSTEM includes academic components focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), its primary goal is to foster increased self-efficacy and confidence in students. The program aims to spark students' interests in various fields, expose them to potential career paths, and broaden their understanding of what they can achieve. 
  • Commitment to Cultural Competency: Recognizing the importance of cultural relevance, the INSTEM program has evolved to incorporate cultural components into its curriculum and experiences. Dr. Wirth discusses efforts to enhance cultural competency, including partnerships with Indigenous organizations, sessions on Native American culture, and engagement with diversity consultants. By integrating cultural perspectives and experiences, INSTEM aims to create a more inclusive and supportive learning environment for students from diverse backgrounds.

Full Transcript:

Ashley Thornberg

Jayna, not to put you on the spot, but I've never actually been told that someone feels grateful to speak on behalf of a program. So that, to me, shows how meaningful this program has been to you. Why do you use a word like grateful?

Jayna Lockwood

I use grateful because INSTEMreally taught me how leadership skills, and then it's something I really look forward to during the summer break of my school year. Like, it gives me an opportunity to learn about college life, campus life, and then it makes me really connect with my friends around me who share similar interests, and it really makes me feel connected to the ones around me.

Ashley Thornberg

When you use a term like leadership skills, can you give us a few more details?

Jayna Lockwood

To me, I feel like it's comfort in the classroom and being able to speak and lead a team. Because during INSTEM, you will be in groups, and then you and your group will be able to study something, and then you can work together towards presenting it at the end of the year, or end of the camp.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, so how does it compare to a normal school situation for you?

Jayna Lockwood

It really helps me, like, talk to others, and whenever I'm placed into a new group of people, like here I am in Minot, it helps me really lead on with others. Because normally people here in Minot have their friend groups, so I don't really fit in. But when I talk to people, I really use the leadership skills I learned from INSTEM to, like, really lead conversations and tell them how life is in Newtown.

Ashley Thornberg

Dr. Wirth, let's bring you into the conversation here, because it sounds like it goes a lot deeper than just teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Dr. Jamie Wirth

Yeah, absolutely. You know, a typical INSTEM experience is only four days long every summer. So, of course, there's no way we can get deep into a lot of math curriculum or science curriculum or things like that.

I mean, that's what the regular school year and the K-12 system is for. So what we're really focused on is just helping students have, you know, increased self-efficacy, some confidence, maybe spark a few ideas in their mind about what they might want to do with maybe college or as a career or what they're capable of doing or, you know, just what are some of the things that are out there that they might not even be familiar with. So while it's an academy and we do academic things, I would say the focus on it is really about that confidence, that self-efficacy, and just getting students interested in the STEM areas.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. So how does the actual INSTEM program work?

Dr. Jamie Wirth

Well, we've been kind of evolving over the years. We started in 2018 and we make some changes every year. But basically, the students come in on a Sunday afternoon and we do some icebreaker activities and some team-building activities, and they stay all the way until Thursday afternoon.

So they spend their nights living right in the residence hall, right on campus, just like where the college students would live. They eat their meals at the cafeteria on campus. They have their academic sessions right in the classrooms and labs, right on the VCSU campus.

So what we really try to do is kind of give them a taste of that college experience. They get to live like a college student for four days, and we just run them through a variety of activities. And each year is a different curriculum, if you will.

So starting out their very first year, we usually start them as sixth grade completers or students who are going into the seventh grade the following year. And we give them kind of a survey of different STEM activities. They might spend two hours in a chemistry lab doing something, and then they might spend a couple hours building a bridge, and then they might spend a couple hours doing some computer coding or something like that.

And then in our second year, we focus on careers. We'll take some field trips. We've been to Microsoft.

We've been to Bobcat, Doosan. We've been to Aldebaran in Fargo. We go out to our Prairie Waters Education and Research Center.

The whole idea there is to expose students to lots of different career fields. And then as they come back for their third and their fourth year, we have different experiences for them every year so that each year is unique.

Ashley Thornberg

Jayna,you have done this multiple years now. How has it been different for you to build and grow during a successive sort of education program like this?

Jayna Lockwood

I've been attending INSTEM Academy practically every year. It's me and one other girl, I believe. And each year, I like how there's something new and there's something different for me to do.

It feels like an entirely new experience. And then when we focused on our second year in college careers, that really hit me off. I really liked going to the Prairie and Aldebaran, and I've never been to any of those places.

So it was like a whole new experience for me, and it opened up so many new opportunities for me. This last year, when we were evolving a little bit, I participated in a sonar thing into our rivers and lakes. And that really was, it was amazing.

It was like, I've never felt connected to something like that before, and it was just like, it felt so nice. Because each activity is in a different setting. So I was basically on the water almost every single day, and it was just so nice just being out there and being open.

Ashley Thornberg

What did you think college was going to be like prior to participating in a program, and how has this shaped maybe now how you think about college?

Jayna Lockwood

I used to think about college like as a simple, kind of like high school, but not the dorms. I never really knew about dorms or anything like that. And then I never really knew college campuses could be so big, because the one in Newtown is like right dead center, kind of, it's almost as big as the high school, like everything in Newtown is the same size because of our student count.

And then I didn't know that college could give me so many like opportunities, because I feel like there's so many classes and so many choices that you can make that's personalized to you. And then now that I lived and had some experience on college campus at VCSU, I know what it's like to roam about campus, to go to certain classes, and then you can basically like bond with others because they're the communal area. And I thought that was really nice.

I didn't know you can do that.

Ashley Thornberg

Realizing that you are still awfully young in high school, which just the way that you're speaking, it's hard to believe you're still in high school. But do you bring this back to your friends and family in Newtown and talk about how this program works?

Jayna Lockwood

I do actually a lot. I convinced my youngest sister to attend INSTEM as well, and I'm hoping she'll do her third year there this year. She loves going to BCSU because it's like a whole new experience for her.

And then we just bond together talking about INSTEM, and then I'll just ask, how did you like it? And she'll tell me she really liked it, and she loves bringing her friends with too. I'll tell her something about it, and then she'll just talk about it with her friends and just spread the word.

Ashley Thornberg

Dr. Wirth, before we started recording the conversation, you and Jayna were talking, and I was really struck by the way that you said, “Hi, Jayna, how are you?”.

And then she said, “Jamie, it's wonderful.” Talk about the personal relationship, even just being comfortable with somebody calling you Jamie instead of Dr. Wirth.

Dr. Jamie Wirth

Yeah, the personal connection is a huge part of this. When we started this program back in 2018, it was just a pilot program, and we started it with 12 students from Newtown, and Jayna was one of those 12. And those students have been back every year.

Jayna's been here four times now, and now we missed a couple years because of COVID. But Jayna's been here every year that she's been able to come along with a couple of her classmates. So not only do we get to know the students right away when they come, but when they come back each year, pretty soon we're just on a first name basis.

And for example, Jayna and I share emails about whatever. Jayna's already told me about what her college plans are and what she wants to do after high school and her aspirations. And those are the kind of relationships we're really interested in.

And that's part of the reason why we have this set up as a cohort program is if you come the summer after you completed sixth grade, assuming you had a successful experience and you enjoyed that experience, we want you to come back the next year and the next year and the next year and the next year. And that's how those relationships get formed. And we really believe that having students come back year after year after year just strengthens all of that, strengthens their confidence, their self-efficacy.

I think Jayna is a perfect example of that. And it's not just Jayna. We've had many other students that are in a similar situation to her.

And I love the fact that she recruited her younger sister, Angel, to come. That's just awesome. And that's the kind of relationships we want to build.

Ashley Thornberg

Dr. Wirth, let's talk about relationships on a different level here, because there is an element of cultural competency. How do you, as a white man, make yourself available to understanding that the students that you have come from oftentimes very different cultural backgrounds? They might have a very different relationship with the land and land stewardship and the different way that resources get used or even, and you probably don't get into spiritual practices in this program, although please correct me if I'm wrong, but how do you make sure that you have done the work to meet the kids where they are at?

Dr. Jamie Wirth

That's a great question. And I'm glad you asked that because that's part of the evolution, if you will, of our program. I would argue that when we started in 2018 with that first group of 12 students, we had almost no cultural relevance in our curriculum or our experiences.

And now, fast forward about six years later, we've implemented all kinds of things. Starting with a few years ago, we made a partnership with Lisa Lonefeight, who works for the MHA Nation Science and Technology Office, to have her help us a little bit with some of the cultural components of the, not only just the academic content, but some of the social things and whatnot. Last year, for the very first time, we brought in First Nations consultant, a gentleman by the name of Ricky White and Melody Stabner, who works for Fargo Public Schools, specifically with Native American education.

They were able to come in and meet with all of our students for a really excellent session just on, you know, the Native American culture and how that fits into the education landscape. The students and the faculty and staff were so impressed with what Ricky and Melody were able to bring. We are definitely bringing them back again this year.

In fact, we just sort of booked them a couple days ago to come again this summer. We also engaged the help of our VCSU Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Dr. Kelly LaFromboise, who's right on our campus here. She's done sessions with the students and has helped out the faculty and staff.

And we are in the process of lining up some additional content for this summer through the, it's a North Dakota Native American elders website and some kind of cultural and diversity training that we're going to line up through North Dakota DPI and some others that I was just working on yesterday. So, it's evolving. We're trying to get better and better at, you know, not only providing an academic and kind of a college campus experience for the students, but tying in that cultural aspect as much as we can.

Ashley Thornberg

Jayna, early on in our conversation, you talked about living in Minot now and finishing up your schooling there and talking about what it's like to explain life in Newtown to people in Minot. So, walk us through, how do you sell Newtown to people?

Jayna Lockwood

I see that it's a pretty small community of students who are working together. I've never really talked to the adults in Newtown. I normally stay in school and do my work.

So, when they ask how it was like in Newtown, I say, oh, it was like really small and everyone just was stuck together. Like, my graduating class this year has 400 plus seniors, but back in Newtown, there's like 40 seniors who are graduating, which is a big shock to me. I tell them, no, I've stuck with the same kindergarten class every year and we really knew everything about each other.

Ashley Thornberg

Jayna, what would you change about how the INSTEM program works if you were in Dr. Wirth's role?

Jayna Lockwood

That's a hard question because I thoroughly enjoy everything I do there. I feel like I would want to make it a little longer though. It just feels really nice to be on campus and meeting a lot of new people and meeting the same people each year.

Like, I would always wish it was longer.

Ashley Thornberg

Dr. Wirth, talk to us about the application process. You have a round of applications for the summer program due April 15th?

Dr. Jamie Wirth

Yep. This is the first year that we've actually opened up in-STEM opportunity to application in previous years when we started as the pilot program. Like that very first year, we just started with the Newtown students and those students didn't necessarily apply.

They were just kind of self-selected by their school district and recruited and they got on a bus and they came to us. In our second year in 2019, we added 8 Mile School District in Trenton, North Dakota. Again, the teachers and administration at Newtown and Trenton would just recruit the students internally and then bring the students to us.

Starting this year, summer of 2024, we have implemented an application process where any Native American student who has completed 6th grade or higher is eligible to apply. So, it's definitely part of the evolution of our program. We've already gotten some applications even though we're still early in the application window.

We've already gotten some from schools outside of Newtown and Trenton, which is great. We're certainly hoping to get more. We do have a certain capacity of what we can handle as far as space in the residence halls and the number of faculty that we have.

So, unfortunately, we might not be able to accept all applications depending on how many applications we get based on our capacity. But the application process is based on merit. We have the students not only give us their regular information like their name and their email address and stuff like that, but we ask them to write a paragraph about why they want to participate in InSTEM.

We ask them to tell us about yourself, tell us what your interests are, what are your future goals, what do you want to do after high school, things like that. Then we also require them to have a recommendation completed on their behalf. So, they need to get a hold of whether it's a counselor or a coach or a teacher, and they need to provide the contact information for that recommender.

Then we send that recommender a form to fill out on the student's behalf. They can rate the student on their maturity, on their ethical decisions and their behavior and how they are in the classroom and their academic preparation and things like that. So, it's a fairly rigorous process, although we've made the application hopefully student friendly so that it's not too troublesome to fill out.

We realize it might be a little bit more difficult for younger students who are just getting done with sixth grade. So, we encourage an adult or a parent or somebody to maybe help some of the younger students fill in the application. But, you know, some of our older students, my hunch is Jayna didn't have anybody assist her with filling out her application. She was probably able to do it on her own just fine.

Jayna Lockwood

Jayna, what are your college plans? When I graduate high school this year, I plan on taking a gap year just to get my driver's license, get a quick job and then some money and learn a little more about college life. Because I will be the first kid in my family to be going out of state for college.

Everyone in my family has gone to like community college or somewhere close near to Newtown. But I plan on going to like Oregon or Texas for college, which is a really far away. It's a lot on me because I struggle with having to leave for so long because I plan on getting my doctorate in marine biology and such.

So, I'm going to be away for a long time and I want to sort of get prepared for the year before I leave.

NOTE: This transcript was generated using AI tools. The audio of the program is the official record.