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‘You can go anywhere with this degree’: Leech Lake Tribal College highlights STEM education, careers

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Robert White, left, and his brother Marcus White watch a rocket soar through the air at the "Across the Universe" science night Thursday at Leech Lake Tribal College. The events were hosted by the college's STEM department. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 4
Drevon White, 6, checks out a tarantula from the Headwaters Science Center during the "Across the Universe" science night Thursday at Leech Lake Tribal College. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)3 / 4
Kitura Main, from the Headwaters Science Center, shows the crowd the exoskeleton of a tarantula during the "Across the Universe" science night Thursday at Leech Lake Tribal College. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)4 / 4

CASS LAKE -- As a crowd of excited onlookers craned their necks to follow its course, a small rocket accelerated into the evening sky. The rocket gave off a puff of smoke as its parachute deployed and it tumbled back to earth, a gaggle of children running to catch it before it landed roughly in the grass.

The rocket was one of a pair launched by students and staff at Leech Lake Tribal College’s “Across the Universe,” a second-annual celebration of science, technology, engineering, and math that staff there hope will entice children and prospective students, especially those belonging to ethnic minorities, to consider educations and careers in those disciplines.

“That's where the good jobs lie, and that's where the need lies if you're going to protect and be the caretakers of your own tribal resources,” said Cate Belleveau, the school’s STEM outreach director and one of the event’s organizers. “Sometimes you get a little ignored when it’s just indigenous wisdom...when you can also have the science background and the research background, that’s another powerful blend.”

Belleveau said the college’s students need to matriculate into management-level STEM positions -- not just “technicians” -- to lead efforts in forest management and water protection, a subject that has taken on added weight as protesters and police continue to clash over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

Melinda Neville, a science instructor at the tribal college, said people might not know about opportunities in research science.

“It’s more than just that lab technician or medical field….actually going out and doing science,” she said, adding that people often exercise their science chops without realizing it.

“Think about ‘red sky at night, sailors’ delight,’” she said, referring to a maritime rule of thumb used to forecast oncoming storms. “We look to the weather and we have a prediction about what that means for the next couple hours...We’re making an observation, we’re making a hypothesis based on that observation, then we’re going to test that hypothesis by either bringing our raincoat or not. We’re evaluating our surroundings on a regular basis.”

Other activities at Across the Universe included a display of “not huggable critters” like snakes, lizards and tarantulas, and small workshops about robotics, virtual reality, math games, and more.

Chris Stauffer helped launch the two rockets for the crowd at Across the Universe and captains the college’s rocket club. The club designs and builds rockets to meet challenges like launching a satellite or taking an aerial reading of weather conditions.

He said STEM fields need more minorities, who can improve their lives and bring back their technical knowledge and skills to the community.

“One thing I wanted to do when I first started going to school was take it elsewhere, but now I’m looking at ways to give back,” Staffer said. He hopes to open a business in the Cass Lake area -- maybe fixing computers or with Leech Lake Telecom.

Stauffer said he’s going to school for computer engineering and his “ultimate life goal” is to one day work for a tech giant like Google, Nasa, Tesla, or Apple.

“You can go anywhere with this degree,” he said.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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