Published: July 16, 2015
Group photo of students in Sustainable Building Research Experience and Mentoring program

Challenges faced by American Indian reservations are many: lack of educational opportunity, high dropout rates, low representation in fast-growing STEM fields and therefore career opportunity, and dilapidated and unsafe housing options among them.

However, a National Science Foundation-funded research and mentoring program for American Indian high school students run by civil engineering associate professor John Zhai is showing students the power of engineering to identify and solve tribal housing problems, as well as creating a lifelong interest in science, technology, engineering and math. This Sustainable Building Research Experience and Mentoring (REM) program is now in its third year.

This summer, 12 students from the Rosebud Indian Reservation spent a week in Boulder, where they attended lectures on sustainability and engineering by CU faculty, participated in engineering design challenges and hands-on workshops on sustainable building materials and energy systems. Students built a straw bale construction wall, designed and built their own mold samplers, and installed a residential solar system in Denver with Grid Alternatives, a non-profit organization that brings renewable energy to underserved communities.

They then traveled to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and did more “hands on” engineering research evaluating tribal housing. Students compared traditional housing to sustainably built homes evaluating levels of mold and energy efficiency. CU-Boulder graduate student instructor Wyatt Champion guided the students in analysis of the data from homes and development of research abstracts and posters for presentation at the National Science Foundation’s annual Emerging Researchers Network conference in Washington, D.C., in 2016.

“The new concepts from our research will be used to inspire diverse ideas of smart development, use and management of green buildings on reservations,” said Zhai. “Information and data collected from the REM program activities will also be useful to expand the current research scope and facilitate the inherent integration of innovative research outcomes with practical applications."

Throughout the month-long program, students were taught by CU engineering graduate students and alumni and mentored by members of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) from Colorado, Pine Ridge and Rosebud. Mentors discussed the unique challenges facing American Indian students in STEM, ways they had overcome these challenges, and advised students to seek out help when they need it.

Members of the AISES chapter at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology have invited students to present their research findings in the fall. The students also plan to deliver their findings to the Northern Cheyenne Housing Authority and Tribal Council.

Sydney Horse Looking, a student from St. Francis Indian School in St. Francis, South Dakota, said the lectures sparked an interest in engineering and the different ways to build a house.

“My favorite part was learning about constructing a straw-bale house because my mom wants to build one,” she said. “I thought if I came here, I could help her.”

Horse Looking was amazed to learn how sturdy straw bale construction can be.

“People think that because the house is made of straw that it is destructible, but really straw bale homes are more sustainable and durable,” Horse Looking said. “I like that it is more energy efficient and that the materials come from nature. The energy savings can help people pay for (other) things and cut their bills.”

Over the past two years, the program has worked with a number of different tribal colleges and high schools to recruit students from Haskell Indian Nations University, Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, and Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. In total, 25 American Indian students and four teachers have participated in the program.  

At least five of the 14 participants from 2014 are now pursuing STEM degrees and research programs. Chantel Greene, a 2014 participant from Haskell Indian Nations University and member of the Nez Perce Tribe, is now working as a research assistant for the Tribe’s Clearwater Watershed, and will be starting a master’s degree in sustainability science in 2016.

“This program greatly influenced my views on STEM, I now plan to further my education in grad school to study sustainability,” Greene said.

For more information on the program please see project website: