UA encourages Natives to study science

Program incentives include computers and scholarships

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2005

Greg Chilton, a Juneau-Douglas High School student, studied the drawing of a tire on paper and looked up at a computer screen Wednesday.

"This isn't three dimensions, is it?" he asked Dennis Dishion, a consultant from Palmer who is introducing students to a drafting program.

"Yeah, it's all three dimensions," Dishion said, and then guided Chilton through the steps to create a cross-section of a tire. When a realistic-looking tire finally popped up on the computer screen, Chilton said, "Oh, sweet."

Eleven JDHS students, mostly Natives, assembled their own computers this week and will learn a three-dimensional drafting program through the rest of the school year.

It's the first time in Juneau for a University of Alaska project that offers incentives for Natives to study science and math.

"We'd like it to be in every school, so ultimately students could do their pre-college program and go on to careers in biology, or careers in engineering or any science field, so we have Native people making decisions about things that impact the Native population," said Herb Schroeder, who directs the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program at UA.

If the JDHS students complete courses in physics, chemistry and high-level math with a grade of C or above, they'll get to keep the computers, which come with a drafting AutoCAD program and Windows.

The students also are eligible for scholarships to a summer calculus program after their senior year, and for scholarships at the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Alaska Fairbanks in math and science.

Chilton, a senior, said he already had planned to major in architecture or engineering in college.

"I've designed a house already. I planned a lot of houses. I always dreamed of my dream house. I designed it on paper," said Chilton, who is Tlingit.

He's studied physics and calculus at JDHS, but not chemistry. Had Chilton known in his freshman year about the UA program, he probably would have taken chemistry, too, he said.

Flora File, a junior, said she was interested in architecture and interior design because they require creativity.

"And hopefully I'll get the hang of this pretty soon because it's really new," File said as she puzzled over drafting exercises with AutoCAD.

File, who is Eskimo, said she's taking trigonometry now and would have studied physics and chemistry next school year anyway. But the incentive of keeping her computer is an "added topping to a dessert," she said.

From the late 1970s to 1985 there were three Native graduates of the UAA School of Engineering, Schroeder said. There were 14 Native graduates in a recent year alone, he said.

The UAA and UAF Native science and engineering program is part of the Pacific Alliance, which seeks to increase the number of indigenous people in the sciences.

Today, there are 700 indigenous students enrolled in bachelor of science programs at the schools of the Pacific Alliance, which also includes the University of Hawaii Manoa and the University of Washington, the alliance said.

To attract and keep students, the UAA School of Engineering followed the Native model of community, which values mentoring and group efforts.

But the university also realized that some Alaska high schools weren't offering pre-college science and math, and principals didn't think their students could pass such courses.

"The expectations were set so low that it predisposed those students to failure when they came to the university," Schroeder said.

The high school computer program began in 2002 with 10 students in Kotzebue, Schroeder said. This school year, about 200 students in 27 schools in Alaska are expected to participate.

It is funded by the National Science Foundation, other foundations and corporations.

At his computer Wednesday, Chilton said, "I'm going to fix this tire so it looks better," and went back to work.

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