UA Leads New STEM Traineeship to Address Food, Energy, and Water Security in Indigenous Communities

With funding from NSF, a five-year, $3-million research traineeship will give UA graduate students the tools to increase food, water, and energy security in indigenous communities.

Worldwide, approximately 370 million indigenous people live in over 90 countries, yet they often lack access to energy, water, and food infrastructure.

A new five-year, $3-million NSF-funded program will develop a diverse STEM workforce with the intercultural awareness and multidisciplinary knowledge necessary to address this problem. Through the program, at least 26 University of Arizona graduate students will apply their STEM education to food, water, and energy-related challenges in Navajo Nation.

On the Navajo Nation whose indigenous name is “Diné,” roughly 35% of dwellings are not connected to central power or potable water. The Navajo Nation is the largest tribe in the U.S. and has the largest reservation located in Southwestern United States. Lack of connection to central power and water is due to low population density, availability of sustainable and effective technologies, and economic practicalities.

By partnering with Diné College and Navajo Technical University, the program, led by UA Assistant Professor of Environmental Physics and Hydrology Karletta Chief, will directly engage underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“Food, energy, and water insecurity are common on the Navajo Nation. Students who go through this research traineeship will not only have expertise in their field, but also the ability to address FEWS challenges in indigenous communities, think holistically, and work collaboratively with indigenous communities,” said Chief, who is also an extension specialist in the UA’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Chief’s collaborators at the UA include, among others, Head of American Indian Studies Benedict Colombi, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Erin Ratcliff, Director of the recently formed Institute for Advanced Energy Solutions and Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering Kimberly Ogden, and Acting Director of the UA Controlled Environment Agriculture Center and Professor of Agricultural-Biosystems Engineering Murat Kacira.

This year, the team will focus on building the program and recruiting students, with enrollment beginning in August 2018. Once enrolled, MS and PhD students in the program will major in STEM disciplines while completing internships, a FEWS-themed minor, professional development, and immersion in indigenous communities.

The FEWS minor, now in development, will include three already existing courses at the UA—ABE 582, MSE 550, and AIS 595—as well as one new course designed to facilitate the design and construction of pilot-scale capstone projects in dispersed water purification and greenhouse system design in underserved areas of the Navajo Nation.

Industry and government partners have already signed on to provide internships to students in the program. Those partners include Tucson Electric Power, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Apex Applied Technology, the Little Colorado River Watershed Chapters Association, and Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources.

Professional development opportunities through the program will leverage already existing resources on campus, including a seminar series that will be broadcasted to the tribal colleges, and trainings on how to present research and work with indigenous communities.

Cultural immersion is another important component of the program. Student trainees will develop FEWS educational modules and teach them at the tribal colleges as well as implementing their pilot systems in the field and training community members on how to use the system.

“These students will be co-learning alongside the indigenous community,” said Chief. “You can develop really nice technology, but if you’re not working with the community, it could just sit there. It could be the best technology, but if people don’t know what it is, or how to use it, or if it’s not culturally appropriate, it won’t work.”

“I envision this stimulating interdisciplinary collaboration, cutting-edge research on FEWS, and supporting the STEM pipeline from tribal colleges to the UA,” said Chief. “We should see an increase in security of FEWS on the Navajo Nation, too.” 

Release Date

Friday, September 15, 2017