UW and College of Menominee Nation Collaborate on Intro Astronomy Course

Nov 04, 2013

by Ed Churchwell and Britt Lundgren

The state of Wisconsin has a significant Native American population, with 11 different bands living within its borders. It is home to the only two tribal colleges east of the Mississippi, and several hundred Native American undergraduate students attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The proximity of these tribal communities provides a perfect opportunity for the UW-Madison Astronomy Department to apply the “Wisconsin Idea” by teaming up with the tribal colleges to enrich their physical science programs. They, in turn, can enrich our understanding of traditional Native American culture and knowledge of astronomy.

Native Americans currently represent an almost invisible minority among professionals in the physical sciences and, in particular, astronomy. A recent examination of diversity in the American Astronomical Society (AAS) membership shows that only a few identifiable Native Americans are included within its approximately 7,500 members. These statistics present a challenge to improve our reach to Native American students who, if given a stronger introduction to astronomy, may make important contributions to the field during this very exciting time of discovery.

This past spring, we went to the College of Menominee Nation (CMN) in Keshena, Wisconsin to discuss the possibility of establishing a collaborative introductory astronomy course to be taught partly by both UW-Madison and CMN staff. Though CMN has no astronomers and very few physical scientists on its staff, it has elders who are knowledgeable both about their culture and understanding of astronomy.

CMN founder and President Dr. Verna Fowler and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Diana Morris were both very enthusiastic about establishing a collaborative course in astronomy between CMN and UW-Madison. The UW Astronomy faculty has also agreed to give this effort a two- year trial period, with the understanding that if it is successful and financially sustainable, it could become a long-term program between CMN and UW Astronomy. “Why astronomy?,” one might ask. Our response is that astronomy is a “gateway science” that uses all the sciences to understand the nature of the universe. So, studying astronomy will necessarily introduce basic principles of physics, chemistry, geology, math, meteorology, engineering, and even biology.

We again traveled to CMN this fall to discuss course content, respective responsibilities, and physical and technical requirements. The hope is that the course can be offered beginning with the upcoming spring semester. It will have both some anthropology and astronomy content and should be of interest to a wide student audience. However, it will first and foremost be a physical science course. Britt has volunteered to teach the first class, and Ed will provide support as needed. Our goal is to provide a course that will tickle the imaginations of the students and possibly convince some of them that science is an exciting and rewarding career path. We believe that this venture will also offer opportunities for our students, postdocs and faculty to participate in a rewarding experiment with CMN students and faculty.

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