Many Ways of Knowing

A new program engages rural Native American kids in real-life bioenergy research

“How do you take care of the forest—and how does the forest take care of you?”

Those questions might not spark a vibrant discussion among typical suburban middle-schoolers. But kids who grow up living, playing or hunting on the Menominee Indian Reservation in northeastern Wisconsin couldn’t say enough.

“They had all kinds of stories about the plants and animals that live there,” says CALS researcher Hedi Baxter Lauffer, who recently sat in on a talking circle with seventh- and eighth-graders from the Menominee Indian School District. “They were saying things like, ‘I take my nephew into the forest and teach him to pick up his trash. He needs to know that it’s a beautiful place to play.’”

Lauffer, along with biochemistry professor Rick Amasino and other researchers, was seeking student input for POSOH (poh-SOH)—the Menominee word for hello—a new partnership program between CALS (with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in a leading role) and the College of Menominee Nation.

The program, funded by a $4.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will over the next five years prepare students for bioenergy- and sustainability-related careers. Unlike most science education programs, POSOH will include exploration of how Native American traditions contribute to understanding ecosystems and sustainability.

People from minority cultures often struggle finding a path into science because of conflicts with their heritage, notes Lauffer. POSOH researcher Robin Kimmerer, for example, says that as a professor of forest biology and as a Native American, she’s had to work hard to reconcile two distinct ways of experiencing nature.

“In science we are asked to objectify the world, to view it in a strictly material, intellectual way,” says Kimmerer, who earned her doctorate in botany at UW–Madison and now teaches at the State University of New York. “In indigenous ways of knowing, we’re reminded that we can understand the world intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually—and that we can’t really claim to understand something unless we engage all four elements,” she says.

POSOH started field-testing teaching units this fall with 150 middle-schoolers, along with launching an after-school “sustainability club” and offering school-break research opportunities for kids on the UW–Madison campus. Over the next five years POSOH will provide numerous summer teacher training institutes to spread the program, which is expected to reach several thousand children in rural Wisconsin—and, researchers hope, provide a national model for bringing diverse ethnic groups into science.

We have a lot to gain by doing this, notes Lauffer. “We need innovative solutions to energy and sustainability challenges,” says Lauffer. “Broadening our knowledge and increasing access to scientific inquiry can help us meet those challenges.”