The Utah State University section of the Society of Women Engineers was awarded the Outstanding Outreach Event Award from the international Society of Women Engineers on Nov. 18 for their work on their new Diné Engineering Extravaganza Jr. event.
The goal was to help students connect their indigenous identity to what they learn and how they see themselves in engineering. It focused on outreach to the Diné Bikeyah, a Navajo tribe in Southern Utah.
The event took place in March at two elementary schools in the San Juan School District. About 98 percent of the students there are Diné. They were given the opportunity to participate in hands-on, culturally inclusive STEM activities. SWE members facilitated activities to 100 students and their educators from four different disciplines — biological, mechanical and aerospace, computer, and environmental engineering.
“In the state of Utah, the indigenous community often does not receive enough funding for STEM education,” said Associate Professor and Faculty Adviser Elizabeth Vargis. “The majority of students in the southern part of our state are members of the Navajo nation, a historically underserved population. As a result, the children who grow up in this area are less likely to pursue degrees in STEM.”
To help address this problem, SWE asked educators on the Navajo reservation what areas they felt were lacking and what projects they wanted to see for their students. This, along with extensive research on Navajo cultural values and lifestyles, helped the group indentify Diné cultural knowledge that already played a role in their inclusion of STEM.
Each workshop was integrated with indigenous culture, lifestyle, values and history and was paired with a presentation of background information on the topics and culture. USU-SWE provided each student with a take-home bag with STEM activities, additional information about indigenous leaders, higher education resource fliers for parents and caregivers, and a shirt that incorporated the Diné language and flag. This year, they will also include an illustrated book on the science-Diné relationship to continue to connect the Diné community to engineering.
“This event has had an impact on not only the students who participated, but also on the members of our collegiate section since volunteers learned just as much, if not more from the students. This activity makes it evident that engineering will only benefit from increases in perspectives that come from diversity and equity within it,” said Kristine Peterson, the previous SWE vice president of student affairs and current SWE liaison.
SWE will continue to expand the program along with their other Extravaganza events in the future. It is the hope that strengthening a connection to the San Juan School District and its community will create a lasting collaboration and continue to inspire young indigenous engineers to pursue STEM-related activities. They will officially receive this award at a SWE conference in Seattle, Washington, in March 2023.
Public Relations Specialist
College of Engineering
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