In our discussion of the importance of culture in science learning, we have focused on how informal learning institutions can partner with members of the community, particularly those who represent nondominant groups, to rethink the way the institutions approach designing programs, exhibits, and other activities. When successful, these kinds of initiatives integrate elements drawn from the nondominant culture with scientific ideas and practices and offer access points to science that may previously have been unavailable to members of the group.
The role of culture and the need for collaboration are particularly important when the beliefs, language, and cultural practices of a particular group have historically been devalued or even suppressed. The experience of many Native American tribes provides one such example. Native Americans have long been disenfranchised from their land and culture, and they have even been discouraged from speaking their languages and carrying out traditional ceremonies. As a result, the value of native knowledge and their beliefs about the natural world have often gone unrecognized; in fact, many people perceive a conflict between native understanding of the natural world and scientific understanding.
The need to make science education meaningful for Native Americans has long been recognized by respected leaders in the field. Thirty years ago, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) called for using an ethnoscientific as well as bilingual approach to teaching science in particular contexts.11 In response, scholars called for science education that directly relates to the lives of native students and tribal communities. Scholars such as Glen Aikenhead, who is an expert in this field, agree that to be most effective, learning environments must be connected and relevant to each particular Native American tribe.12
Native Science Field Centers, supported by the efforts of the Hopa Mountain program, strive to create such environments in their year-round programs for elementary and middle school students. These programs connect traditional culture and language with Western science. Currently there are three Native Science Field Centers—one on the Blackfeet Reservation in collaboration with Blackfeet Community College (Montana), one on the Wind River Reservation in collaboration with Fremont County School District No. 21 (Wyoming), and one on the Pine Ridge Reservation in collaboration with Oglala Lakota College (South Dakota). The following case study focuses on the Blackfeet Native Science Field Center.