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Creating Science Learning Environments in Which Indigenous Students Can Thrive

By Megan Bang, Nikki McDaid-Morgan, and Alice Tsoodle

Posted on 2020-05-26

Indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by profound social and ecological injustices—and have been for centuries. Yet the majority of the world’s cultural diversity, linguistic diversity, and biodiversity is made up of our communities and in our territories (see various United Nations reports). Recent studies show that only 20% of the world’s lands are controlled by Indigenous peoples, but reflect 80% of the world’s biodiversity (e.g., Garnett et al. 2018).

What would it really take for education to contribute to the well-being and thriving of Indigenous families and communities? To the ecosystems on which we as a species depend? The social and ecological challenges the world faces in the 21st century require all of us to ask and find answers to these questions if education is going to productively contribute to the adaptations and change that we desperately need.

As educators and family and community members, we hold that education has been one of the most pernicious tools of settler-colonialism wielded against Indigenous peoples. Schools have neither valued nor tried to understand and teach Indigenous ways of knowing or being or Indigenous language—nor helped Indigenous students develop thriving identities. Schools, in various degrees of explicitness, have defined academic success as something that moves learners away from their own ways of knowing and being—including knowledge shared by children’s families and communities—at least for families of color and low-income families. And sometimes schools view time spent with family and community as the source of learning loss, even if incidentally. 

The Framework for the Next Generation Science Standards asks us to expand our views of children, their families, and ways of knowing in relation to teaching and learning. Our responsibility as educators is to advance the science of learning and development toward imaginative, just, and sustainable futures. In the learning environments we are developing (which we’ll describe later), young people are engaged in ethical deliberations around decision making now and in the future. And students are grappling with the insight that decisions informed by evidence are better, but recognize that the complexity of the issues before us means our evidential base will likely be incomplete. Indeed, they have recognized that the frameworks and values that shape what we see as important, in need of answers, and even shape our very processes of inquiry are consequential.

The same is true for us as teachers. If we are to create just educational spaces where students, and now more than ever their families, thrive, we must more rigorously engage in evidence-informed ethical decision making in what we teach and how we teach to make–not rest on normative routines.

As educators, we have been developing learning environments—what we call Indigenous STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics), or ISTEAM—that support Indigenous students’ intellectual, emotional, and communal thriving. In these learning environments, Indigenous children learn that their own communities have rich knowledge systems that generatively intersect, and substantively differ, from those that they are normatively asked to engage in at school —what sometimes is called “western sciences.” We have worked to co-design intergenerational learning environments with community elders, children’s caregivers, and other community members to collaboratively decide what and how children should learn, a process that centers on family and community expertise, needs, and hopes. And then we have co-taught in these environments with these elders, caregivers, and other community members.

For example, through co-design, we have created frameworks in which extended kin relations—and the roles, relations, and responsibilities that come from them—are foundational. This has included not only how we view our own relations with young people, but also how we position them with their peers, as well as the more than human life: In our investigations, learners have gotten to know their plant relatives and their role in ecosystems.

Humans reason and make decisions about kin in unique ways, especially when we view plant and animal life as kin. For example, as youth engage in inquiries about ocean acidification in tidal pools, they visit their beach relatives and show great care to avoid injuring any of the animals we encounter. We have built our pedagogical practices around the elegantly simple, but profoundly impactful principle of seeing humans as part of the natural world: We are all in kinship relations and should be respectful and humble in our roles and responsibilities.

Building from this basic principle, we have engaged young people in what many might call field-based science education, investigations and learning in outdoor places. We have employed Indigenous stories not as fables, but as theories and frameworks for knowing. We have engaged young people in investigations in which they wonder, ask questions, and investigate their lands’ socio-ecological histories, and explain how and why ecosystems have changed over time and how they might change again. As part of this work, young people study the environmental limits in local ecosystems and how climate change and ocean acidification are forcing species to the edges of these limits. They have investigated things like decomposition in forests, or forest canopies’ and species succession in disturbed ecosystems.

Our students have wondered about the complexity of systems in ways that past research has said children can’t do. Of course they may not use scientific terminology to do this intellectual work, but learning and ideas shouldn’t be reduced to terminology. Indeed over time, students have taught us about our own subtle deficit assumptions about what they are capable of accomplishing. For us, the development of learning environments that support Indigenous students and families thriving requires ongoing reflection and work both on our practice but also on ourselves. Our ethical obligation as educators is to transform the powered and historicized assumptions and routines that reinforce inaccurate and narrow views of science.

More information can be found at

Garnett, S. T., N. D. Burgess, J. E. Fa,  Á. Fernández-Llamazares,  Z. Molnár,  C. J. Robinson, ...and N. F. Collier. 2018. A spatial overview of the global importance of Indigenous lands for conservation. Nature Sustainability 1(7): 369.

Megan Bang
Megan Bang (Ojibwe and Italian descent) is a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She is a former preschool and middle school teacher. Bang teaches hybrid courses with half undergraduate and half high school students, and co-teaches in K–12 learning environments annually—in schools and in informal contexts. She has been teaching ISTEAM for nearly 20 years.

Bang studies the design and implementation of transformative STEAM learning environments and complex socio-ecological systems. She currently serves on the Board of Science Education for the National Academy of Sciences.

Nikki McCaid-Morgan
Nikki McDaid-Morgan
(Shoshone-Bannock, Paiute) is a parent of two and a doctoral student in Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. She is a former middle school and high school teacher who taught English, musical theatre, and social studies. For three years, McDaid-Morgan has taught in land-based learning environments for Indigenous youth that were co-designed with Indigenous community members and researchers. She also is preparing to teach at the university level through teaching assistant roles within the university.

Alice Tsoodle
Alice Tsoodle
comes from the Kiowa people of Oklahoma and is also a descendent of Irish settlers. Her work specializes in community outreach, program development, outdoor environmental education, curriculum design, and learning sciences research. Tsoodle has been teaching in ISTEAM for five years. She will teach middle school science at Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque this fall.


Note: This article is featured in the May 2020 issue of Next Gen Navigator, a monthly e-newsletter from NSTA delivering information, insights, resources, and professional learning opportunities for science educators by science educators on the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional instruction.  Click here to sign up to receive the Navigator every month.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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