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Bridging Indigenous and Traditional Scientific Approaches:

The Uranium and Radiation Education Project
The Uranium and Radiation Education Project will equip K-12 teachers in the Navajo Nation to teach their students about radiation and uranium mining in their communities. To provide guidance on learning goals, an Advisory Committee was assembled, consisting of representatives from universities, the EPA, Navajo government agencies and high schools. Project staff will collect existing curriculum and supplement it to ensure that the materials meet the national science standards for education and also incorporate Navajo culture, language, and history. The curriculum will be distributed to teachers through nine regional workshops - four for secondary educators and five for elementary (3rd - 6th) educators. The workshops will be held between January and May, 2001. Teachers are encouraged to utilize members of the community and to conduct field trips to make the material as relevant to the students as possible. Another aim is that through the program, Native American students will consider preparing for and entering environmental careers.

Mansel A. Nelson, an educator, has often heard teachers of Native American students say things like, "They (Native American students) are not motivated. They don't participate in class discussions and they don't turn in assignments." While Mansel was teaching at a reservation school, the math educators failed over half of the first year algebra students. When discussing this high failure rate with the math teachers, Mansel was told the students were "lazy and unmotivated." Based on Mansel's experience and research, these educators are missing two major clues about working with Native American students:

  1. Cultural Behavior - Native American students are from a different culture and have different behaviors. Native American students may express their "interest" in different, culturally appropriate ways.
  2. Motivated Differently - Native American students are not motivated the same way that non-native students are motivated. While non-native students may be motivated by "grades," Native American students are more motivated by learning something that will benefit their family and community.

The curriculum of most schools focuses on generic textbooks in isolated subject areas. Students are taught about the theories and models of science, mathematics, and literature. Applications of this knowledge in the real-world is considered "non-academic" and reserved for vocational programs. However, Native American students respond better to a holistic, integrated curriculum that uses the "real-world" as an extension of the classroom. The project will utilize two approaches to education -- community-based education and problem-based learning.

Community-based education allows students to make the connection between the subject of learning and relevance to real-world issues and concerns of their community. For example, students at Monument Valley High School, Monument Valley, UT, produced a video, "Hear Our Voices," in which they interviewed community elders to document their stories about the impact of uranium mining on their lives. Through this, the students were able to explore history, use the Navajo language, perform before a camera, and film and edit the video, in a way that was meaningful to their lives. Information about this video will be posted on the UREO web page.

The curriculum plan for UREO will include specific suggestions to the teacher on ways of getting students personally involved in the issues related to Uranium mining and milling on the Navajo Nation. The UREO program approach will help students discover for themselves the relevance of uranium mining and milling to his/her family, community, and Nation.

The problem-based learning approach will be used to encourage students to formulate the problem as it connects to their lives, ask questions for investigation, establish a plan for action, with their group conduct the necessary research, and then assemble a report of their findings. Rather than handing facts and procedures to the students, this approach encourages them to develop their own questions and investigate for themselves, thereby internalizing learning with greater comprehension.(3) It is hoped that students will develop a sense of empowerment to learn about and take action on environmental issues.

The UREO program will encourage teachers to utilize small group activities that allow voluntary, self-directed participation. Studies have shown that Indian children are more likely to participate in team or group activities as opposed to individual performance before an entire class. This supports findings that Indian children are less willing to perform in a competitive situation in which they may appear superior to others or cause others to feel inferior. At the same time, team-based activities allow a group to excel and all in the group to succeed.(9)

The principles discussed above form a foundation for the Uranium and Radiation Outreach program that will be implemented on the Navajo Nation over the next couple of years. The following quote will help illustrate the Native Educational Philosophy used in the UREO program. "All learning should start with what the student and community know and are using in every day life. The Native student will become more motivated to learn when the subject matter is based on something useful and suitable to the livelihood of the community and is presented in a way that reflects the interconnectedness of all things."(4)

The UREO program will encourage educators to incorporate the cultural guidelines published by the Native Knowledge Network ( In addition, the program will combine Navajo and "Western" (Euro-American) educational concepts in order to maximize the potential for learning, reinforce the value of culture and language, and support the philosophy of environmental stewardship. For example, the processes of environmental change can be explained through a Dine (Navajo) paradigm. "The Dine paradigm for cyclical processes is empirical and is analogous to Le Chatlier's principle in Euro-American physical chemistry, which states that a system in equilibrium, if disturbed, responds so as to counteract the disturbance. "(5,6,7)

The parallel use of these models serves to reinforce learning and cultural identity. A diverse group of educators argue that encouraging Navajo science students to draw on both Native and mainstream worldviews improves their abilities to formulate and work with multiple hypotheses and to more clearly understand dynamic natural processes.(8)


  1. Eric Iyapana, Little Diomede, from "Traditional Knowledge and Radionuclides Project: Progress Report," Alaska Native Science Commission, May 31, 1999.
  2. Enoch Scheidt, Kotzebu from "Traditional Knowledge and Radionuclides Project: Progress Report," Alaska Native Science Commission, May 31, 1999.
  3. Delisle, Robert, "How to Use Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom," 1997.
  4. Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley and Ray Barnhardt, "Education Indigenous to Place: Western Science Meets Native Reality," in Ecological Education in Action - On Weaving Education, Culture and the Environment, Gregory A. Smith, Dilafruz R. Williams, eds., State University of New York, (1999).
  5. S.C. Semken and F. Morgan, "Navajo pedagogy and Earth systems," Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 45, p. 109-112, (1997).
  6. S.C. Semken, "The Navajo natural order as a paradigm in teaching environmental geoscience," Proceedings, 1999 Waste-management Education and Research Consortium Conference on the Environment, p. 263-265 (1999).
  7. S.C. Semken, "The people, the Plateau, and uranium," Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, v. 32, no. 7, p. A-269 (2000).
  8. Edward R Garrison, Wilfred F.Denetclaw Jr., and O. Tacheeni Scott, "Navajo scientists of the next century-- laanaa hasin" Journal of Navajo Education, v. 12, p. 11-15 (1995).
  9. Jon Reyhner, ed., Teaching American Indian Students, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, p. 89-90 (1992).

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Last updated: April 4, 2002


“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestor, we borrow it from our children”
Native American Proverb