"Living in Relations" Research Project

Menominee Indian Tribe, Northwestern University, and The American Indian Center (AIC) Research Project
With Funding through The National Science Foundation - REESE and ISE Grants.

About the project...


*“Collaborative Research – A cross cultural view of biological thought”


*“Collaborative Research – The role of culture and experience in children's understandings of the biological world”


*“Collaborative Research – The cultural context of learning: Native-American science education”.


These are the official titles of the three grants that we are currently working under. They sound pretty official if not a little too scientific or heady probably for the average person like you and I. I asked Dr. Medin to try and sum up the project for me and this is what he had to say:

 Partnership and Purpose

     What is our relationship with Mother Earth? Does the way we think about nature affects how we act on nature?  Are indigenous ways of knowing different from ways of knowing and approaches to teaching common on school classrooms? How can we take advantage of what children learn outside to school to help in school learning?

    These are just some of the questions that we are trying to address in our studies. Our project in based on a partnership involving the Menominee Language and Culture Commission, the Menominee Tribal School, The American Indian Center of Chicago and Northwestern University. None of our research is being done by “outsiders” and all of it has the goal of benefitting both Native American children and tribal institutions. For example, when we are developing a study for children at the Menominee Tribal School, our Menominee research team (including community members) has a strong voice on what we do and how we do it.

 What exactly are we doing?

    Generally speaking our current projects fall into two main branches. One branch aims to study learning about nature that takes place outside the classroom (from things like berry picking, ice fishing, hearing stories from elders etc). In other words we want to see what understandings of biology Native children bring to the classroom as well as ways of learning that are effective outside of school. The other main branch aims to study in school learning and to test ideas about how to improve in school learning (about science).

    Within this broad framework we have done and are doing quite a few related studies that are often targeted at specific content areas of biology. For example, children often have difficulty understanding that plants are alive because (mostly) they do not move and even ten year olds might understand that humans are mammals and that mammals are animals but also believe that humans are not mammals. Some of our studies examine how these understanding develop over time.

    Our previous studies have indicated that Menominee children come to the classroom with an advanced understanding of biology. For example, they use reasoning about ecological relationships years before other children. We also find that Native American adults are also more likely to organize their biological knowledge in terms of relationships (including ecological relationships) than Non-Indian adults. We think this reflects Native-American values systems that focus on living in relationships the idea that everything has a role to play and must be respected.

    This relational perspective may be important for science learning. Most life sciences textbooks have a chapter on ecology but often it is the last chapter in the book. Almost never is living in relationship and other ecological ideas used as an organizing principle. We think that our children will learn more effectively when they are taught using the same general framework that is developed for out of school learning.

     If you are like most children, you don’t like tests. Puzzles and games can be fun but not tests. In another set of interviews we are assessing children’s understandings of nature by either asking them to play with play with a diorama of a forest scene or by asking them to “draw a forest.” Our children enjoy these sorts of activities but they way they play and what they draw can tell us a lot about how they think about nature. For example, when a four-year old playing with the diorama picks up the eagle and places it at the top of a white pine tree, they are revealing knowledge about where bald eagles like to perch. We may be able to evaluate what our children learn from a forest unit by seeing how their drawing of a forest differ after the forest unit compared to before the forest unit.

    We have even looked for clues to learning by looking at children’s books written and illustrated by Native versus Non-Native authors. We have found very large differences in how the illustrations tend to be done and we are now looking at illustrations in science textbooks. We think that our children will learn more effectively when they see illustrations reflecting Native conventions rather than Non-Native conventions.

 What are the benefits of this work?

     We think our project has both direct, short-term and indirect, long-term benefits. Here are some of the direct, short-term benefits. First of all, when our research assistants are doing interviews in schools, they match their interview time with an equal amount of time acting as teacher’s aides, especially in science class. If you have seen how much work is needed for the science projects that are being done for the Menominee science fair, you will appreciate how necessary and helpful teacher’s aides can be. We also donate $10 to the school for each child we interview (we have grants from the National Science Foundation that support this effort). Second, the project provides at least a part-time job for about a dozen Menominees. Although no one is getting rich in this economy these jobs help.

    One important, longer term benefit is improved science learning by Native children. We already have evidence that scores in science on standardized tests are improving.  In addition, by teaching science in a way that reflects Native values and perspectives, our children may be more likely to see science as something that Native people have always done and can do and are doing now. Many tribes, including the Menominee tribe, need scientific expertise and tribes benefit when that expertise includes Native values. We are encouraged by the number of children in the tribal school that have applied for and received grants to attend a summer science programs like at UW Oshkosh. Finally, we are finding that people working on our project themselves are coming to see both the value of research and the possibility that they can seek advanced degrees. For example, several Menominee project workers have returned to school to advance their education. Finally, we think the key to all of this is the partnerships that both affirm tribal sovereignty over research but and open up new possibilities for learning and collaboration.