Native American Energy Education
How a straightforward U.S. government contract is evolving into a rich collaboration.

There’s an old adage that says we have two ears and one mouth for a reason, and we should use them in proportion. A group of Mines faculty found this to be the key to success in an energy curriculum development project with two Native American technical colleges.

Thanks to less talking and more listening, what began as an assignment to develop curriculum for one energy course grew into a three-year series of six short courses, several senior design and teaching projects for Mines students, a journal article, and discussions on replicating the project at other tribal colleges.

Those involved never anticipated how different the final product would be from the original concept, or how much everyone involved—Mines faculty and students, the tribal college faculty taking the course, and the government officials who commissioned it—would learn in the process.

The task at hand seemed straightforward to Gary Baughman MS ’73, PhD ’74, director of Special Programs and Continuing Education. After attending SPACE’s summer Energy and Minerals Field Institute 2006, officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development (IEED) asked him to develop an energy course for tribal colleges. The course would be taught to faculty at Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, NM, and United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, ND, providing the tribal colleges’ faculty with the resources and preparation to teach students in their respective classrooms.

Baughman quickly assembled a team that included Associate Professor of Engineering Catherine Skokan ’70, MS ’72, PhD ’75 and Senior Lecturer Joe Crocker. “We put together this glorious curriculum,” says Skokan. “We presented it to the tribal college leaders (in fall 2006) and they said, ‘This wasn’t quite what we had in mind.’”
“Then,” Skokan says, “instead of talking, we started to listen.” And that, according to everyone involved, was the pivotal moment in the project—one that ensured its relevance and usefulness.

Faculty from NTC and UTTC said that their students, pursuing two-year associate degrees, had much less math and science preparation than, say, a typical Mines student, and were in no position to absorb so much material all at once. They needed “bite-sized chunks” that could fit into their curriculum. And they needed hands-on activities to reinforce the concepts taught.

So the Mines team took a different approach, creating curricula for smaller, more appropriate courses. Darryl Francois, IEED’s division chief of energy policy development, says, “Cathy and Joe took the original concept and, working with NTC and UTTC, customized and adjusted the program to take into account institutional needs and student/faculty interests … We were impressed.”

At the tribes’ request, the first course taught was on land surveying. Skokan recalls them saying, “We can’t even begin to think about using our resources unless we know where our lands are.” So she and Crocker developed a land surveying faculty workshop, which Crocker taught in the summer of 2007.

The tribal colleges next requested help with a “bridging course” that would help boost high school seniors’ and first-year college students’ math and science skills and better prepare them for more intense energy curricula. Skokan gave the course to tribal college faculty in the summer of 2008. That same summer, again at the tribes’ request, Crocker taught a wind energy course to faculty.

Ray Griego, a 20-year-veteran teacher at Navajo Technical College, attended both the bridging and the wind courses. “Cathy and Joe are excellent instructors,” Griego says. “Both courses gave me ideas about teaching in a different way. And I’ve definitely used the materials that they left behind [including class outlines and textbooks].”

Responding to further requests, Crocker and Skokan developed two more faculty workshops: solar energy and a survey course on energy resources, which they will deliver this summer. The final course in the series will be an introduction to engineering.

Skokan says the sequence of the courses would have been different if planned from the outset. But one reason for the program’s success was that both the Mines faculty and the funders allowed the project to evolve according to the clients’ needs. Baughman, who has 20 years of experience working with private and government granting agencies, says he “found it very refreshing that a federal funding organization, instead of getting stuck in its view of what has to be, listened to the tribes and said, ‘Hey, if that’s what it takes, we’ll use the money for that.’”

Francois says the collaborative nature of the project helped a curriculum evolve that “adds real value to [the tribal colleges’] existing programs … while still being true to the original concept.” A member of the Eagle clan of the Kaw tribe of Oklahoma, Crocker brought important perspective to the project. “He explained the unique characteristics of the students we were working with, the cultural aspects and the sensitivities,” says Baughman. “He has a foot in both doors.”

Crocker, who worked for 20 years as a civil engineer prior to earning his doctorate and entering academia, says that while he had never before formally worked with tribal colleges, he was familiar with the challenges they face. “I had a good idea about what we needed to do to give them something they could use,” he says. “The danger would have been to try to ship a Mines course directly.”

The first woman ever to earn a doctorate from Mines, Skokan has worked extensively with K-12 and community college outreach, curriculum development, and using engineering to help the underserved. She was integral in establishing Mines’ Learning Partnerships program, aimed at making math and science more engaging for K-12 students. She also helped establish the school’s humanitarian engineering program six years ago. Skokan sees the tribal college project as a cousin to these other efforts.

As she has many times during her 33-year career at Mines, Skokan found several opportunities to involve Mines students in the project. At NTC’s request, her 2007-08 senior design class developed an articulating antenna bracket for cell phone repeater towers on the Navajo Reservation. The 2008-09 seniors refined the bracket’s design to make it more practical for manufacture. Students traveled to the reservation to present their projects and worked with tribal college students on lab experiments. Other Mines students wrote a manual on wind farms and the turbine design process for use at UTTC. And Mines graduate students went to New Mexico last summer to help teach the bridging course.

Before traveling to the reservations, students learned more about cultural sensitivity to Native American communities and customs. Senior David Pesek, who worked on the antenna project, said, “I not only learned about engineering obstacles people are facing in rural parts of the country, I was also able to get a first-hand experience of Navajo culture and life. I would recommend this [type of experience] to all students.”

Many Native American tribes adhere to the maxim that work done today should provide for a better life tomorrow. Baughman, Crocker and Skokan are looking to the future as well. They recently submitted a paper on the project to an international journal and a proposal to IEED to continue the project through 2011, providing the remaining courses that have been requested by NTC and UTTC and expanding the project beyond the two pilot tribal colleges.

Francois says there has been strong interest from the Bureau of Indian Education officials in providing the materials generated by this project to other schools in their system. “Many of the courses have already been developed,” says Crocker. “So the next step is to spread that information, not only to other tribal colleges, but ultimately to tribal K-12 schools as well.”

Baughman sums it up this way: “This project’s success wasn’t because of any great foresight by me, or anybody at the school. It was just fortuitous. Not only do we have two sensitive people who want to do the right thing and are capable of doing so, but they’re also … helping people who are typically underserved.”

“It’s more than training people to be better engineers,” he says. “It’s a greater social good.”