Presentation #103.01 in the session “Scientific and Cultural Engagement with Arizona Indigenous Communities”.
Why is STEM education with Navajo cultural knowledge valuable to Navajo students? The relationship between Navajo language and culture is deeply rooted; it maintains and conveys cultural ties in everyday life which researchers labeled as “survival”. This is what connects us to Nahasdzáán (Mother Earth) and Yadilhil (Father Sky). STEM education infused with Navajo culture and language recognizes and integrates the intellectual strengths of Navajo students within an academic learning experience. Integrating cultural knowledge into the STEM curriculum based upon Navajo experiences i.e., grassroots stories from community members, elderlies, grandparents and parents, gives cultural validity and appreciation and provides fundamental knowledge before accessing the western scientific concept. Navajo schools that engage in culturally-relevant and project-based approaches indicated that these approaches improve Navajo students’ academic content achievement as well as assisting in revitalizing and validating Navajo language and culture. More importantly, the STEM curricula based on Navajo culture that incorporates oral stories, oral history, depiction of constellations, and fundamental beliefs and values of the community will then be carried on by young Navajos. This learning approach is similar and reflective of incorporating a holistic lifelong process, experimental in nature, which influences how students’ view themselves and forms a foundation of their learning. Many young Navajos are struggling with self-identity and positive self-esteem to be able to understand who they are and their life purpose that encompasses our Sa’ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hóón, our identity and concept of our way of life.
Using local environment knowledge aids in higher-level thinking for students and enables them to bridge the understanding between Western science and Navajo cultural knowledge. Navajos have been using science for all aspects of life, everyday living among Mother Earth’s elements and Father Sky, for countless generations. If Navajo students are to become successful, they must be allowed to utilize their own cultural knowledge and experiences to help them better understand concepts that are being taught in school.