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Editor's Note; This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet focused on education.

After an elder passed away recently in their community, the students at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School in Dzántik’i Héeni, the Tlingit name for Juneau, Alaska, got to work creating a special gift.

Using skills they’d learned in their computer science lessons, the students designed a traditional button blanket on a laser cutting machine. “They found a meaningful way to apply all of that skill and knowledge that they have learned and in such a way that it was authentic,” said Luke Fortier, the school librarian and math teacher.

Fortier’s school participates in a program operated by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society to expand access to computer science and science, technology engineering and math, or STEM, among Native American, Alaska Native and Pacific Islander students. The program trains educators at K-12 schools whose students include Native children on different ways they can introduce young people to programming, robotics and coding.

But computer science lessons like the ones at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School are relatively rare. Despite calls from major employers and education leaders to expand K-12 computer science instruction in response to the workforce’s increasing reliance on digital technology, access to the subject remains low — particularly for Native American students. 

Only 67 percent of Native American students attend a school that offers a computer science course, the lowest percentage of any demographic group, according to a new study from the nonprofit Code.org. A recent report from the Kapor Foundation and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, or AISES, takes a deep look at why Native students’ access to computer and technology courses in K-12 is so low, and examines the consequences.

Director of “seeding innovation” at the Kapor Foundation and report coauthor Frieda McAlear, who is Native Alaskan of the Inupiaq tribe, said the study “forefronts the context of the violence of centuries of colonization and its continuing impacts on Native people and tribal communities as the driver of disparities in Native representation in tech and computing.” 

Schools serving higher proportions of Native students are more likely to be small institutions that lack space, funding and teachers trained in computer science, according to the report. In addition, many Native students attend schools that may lack the hardware, software and high-speed internet needed for these classes.

Even when the instruction is available, courses often lack cultural relevance that would allow Native students to authentically engage with the material, the report says.

Given the history of settler colonialism and the use of Native boarding schools that sought to erase Native identity, making sure that students’ tribal knowledge and traditions are celebrated and integrated into the curriculum will allow students to succeed, the report’s authors say.

“For Native young people and Native professionals to be excluded systematically from the computing and tech ecosystem, it really means that they don’t have access both to the wealth generation possibilities of tech careers, but also access to creating technology tools and applications that can support the continual thriving and growth of cultural and language revitalization in our tribal communities,” McAlear said.

The situation isn’t much better at the post-secondary level, according to report co-author and director of research and career support for AISES, Tiffany Smith, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a descendant of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Since 2020, Native student enrollment in computer science courses has declined at most two-year and four-year institutions, she said, even as more students overall have received degrees in the subject. Part of the reason is that Native students don’t necessarily see a place for themselves and their culture in tech classes and spaces at predominantly white institutions, Smith said.

But the relatively few Native students who do graduate with these degrees are making significant contributions to their communities, according to Smith. She noted that graduates are using their computer science knowledge and emerging technologies to help revitalize Native languages and alleviate other issues tribal nation communities face, including climate change, biases in data collection and poverty. 

Because tribal nations are at the forefront of job growth and development in their communities, they “should be considered critical partners in the future of the technology sector,” the report’s authors write.

The report calls for more investment in training Native educators to teach computer science and related fields, and integrating Indigenous culture, traditions and languages into those classes.

A 4-year-old program run jointly by the Kapor Foundation and AISES, for example, partners with school districts and Native-serving schools to develop tribe-specific culturally relevant computer science curriculum. That instruction doesn’t only happen in computer science class, said McAlear. The program’s staff work with schools to develop project-based, culturally relevant computer science lessons that are woven into other classes including science, language and history.

In Fortier’s district, students in science classes were recently tasked with using robots to code the life cycle of a salmon. Through that activity they gained knowledge of their local tribal economies while being introduced to new tech, he said.

Before the pandemic, Fortier’s school had eliminated some computer science and technology courses due to budget cuts. But with federal Covid relief funding, along with grants from Sealaska Heritage Institute, a nonprofit arm of a regional Native corporation, and programmatic support from AISES, the school was able to restore some of that instruction.*

Fortier said he believes these courses are essential for his students — not necessarily because they’ll have to learn all the latest cutting-edge technology for their future careers, but so they can use contemporary methods to share Native practices, knowledge and skills with the wider community.

“We can learn a lot from the elders in the traditional knowledge,” he said. “But our kids need to apply it in a new, modern, meaningful way. They need to be able to communicate to and within the world.”

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