Lab 29: STEM education for Native Americans

This nonprofit conducts science and technology workshops for Native American students.

by Portia Ladrido

The pursuit of scientific knowledge can be tantamount to the pursuit of truth, especially when the field of science and technology is entirely based on factual, measurable evidence that has concrete significant or insignificant results. The study and advancement of science have brought singular contributions to the improvement of the way we live.

Through logical reasoning and empirical evaluations, we are able to further understand the world around us. The value of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is one that Autumn Toney has recognised. Whilst doing her Master’s in Data Science at Georgetown University, a guest speaker came to one of their lectures and spoke about the importance of building a stronger workforce in STEM fields.

“This got me thinking about how I could use the momentum of this push for STEM to benefit under-served students and communities,” Toney said.

Prior to pursuing her MA, she was working with an organisation called Upward Bound, where she got to work with students in under-resourced schools in her hometown, Orlando, Florida. “My time spent working for Upward Bound showed me how impactful educational programs can be when designed and executed well,” she added.

Native American communities have so much to offer, but because of historical and systemic discrimination and mistreatment, there are many barriers when working with them, especially with regards to education.

As soon as she started working at an educational startup, she then teamed up with a colleague, Aaron Lamphere, whom she knew was also passionate about educational programs in rural areas, to start their nonprofit: Lab 29. Their mission is to reach students with STEM programs that would enable them to have lucrative careers in the field as well as train them to be critical thinkers in and outside of the classroom.

INKLINE talked to Toney to know more about their nonprofit, why they chose Native Americans as beneficiaries, and the challenges they had to go through to pursue their mission.

INKLINE: Why did you choose Native Americans as your beneficiaries? And why a focus on STEM education?

Autumn Toney: The idea for Lab 29 was built around serving Native American students. It stemmed from my desire to be a math teacher at a school on a reservation. Growing up, I had always appreciated the different cultures across tribes in the U.S., and I minored in history at university. Taking several Native American History courses, I learned about the current situation in the education system on reservations, which prompted me to want to teach there.

Native American communities have so much to offer, but because of historical and systemic discrimination and mistreatment, there are many barriers when working with them, especially with regards to education. We chose STEM education specifically for many reasons, but the main one is that with the increase in technology, having a strong background in STEM enables individuals to thrive in school and the workforce.

“Native American communities have so much to offer, but because of historical and systemic discrimination and mistreatment, there are many barriers when working with them, especially with regards to education,” explained Toney. © Lab 29

We wanted to equip schools, teachers, and students with the skills to thrive in any field they wanted to pursue and grow their opportunities. Coding is an excellent skill to have because you don’t need to attend college to get a job in tech, and many jobs are remote, meaning that you do not have to leave your community in order to get a good job. Leaving family, community, and the reservation to pursue higher education or a job creates conflict in many Native American communities, and we wanted to tackle this barrier.

Also, when asked why STEM I always mention this statistic: 0.5 percent of STEM degrees are awarded to Native American students. This statistic is a reflection of access not a reflection of ability. We want to help change these statistics. We believe by increasing student engagement in the classroom through our STEM programs, we can lower the 40 percent high school dropout rate, raise the 15 percent college graduation rate, and increase the participation in STEM fields for Native American students.

I: Can you course us through the three main programs of the organisation? (Camps, Teacher Training, Consulting) And why these three? What makes them effective?

A: The initial goal was to run extensive Summer camps on reservations in order to bring the STEM programs to the students and provide them with the opportunity to really delve into the new material. When we ran our first mini-boot camp in August 2017, we realized that teacher training needed to be the main component of our work. While it’s great to engage students in new material, if you do not collaborate with and train their teachers, the students will not continue to learn and grow.

It was also very important to us that after several years the camps would be fully run by local teachers, and that we worked alongside the schools to ensure that the material aligned with the schools’ pedagogies, tribal culture, and community’s interests.

Consulting was also added because many schools have the resources to implement STEM programs, but do not know where to start. It can be a very overwhelming process because there are so many programs and online, open-source resources. We work with the schools and teachers to help them build out a program that works best for their students.


I: You had a partnership with Upperline Code. How do you choose your partners and what sorts of planning and collaboration do you guys go through together?

A: We absolutely love Upperline Code! We searched for potential partners who could offer Summer material and teacher training–Upperline has both. More than just amazing curriculum, they have the right approach to working with students and teachers. They focus on independent learning with students, meaning that they teach the students how to build and design what is of interest to them.

So instead of a student spending a summer programming a robot or building a game app, the student picks their own independent project and is then able to present it at the end of the camp. This approach adds value to the material that the students are learning and creates an encouraging learning environment, as students are not competing against each other, but rather focusing on how to make their project the best for themselves. The teacher training aspect is also fantastic, as it is designed to take a teacher with no coding background and prepare them to run a camp and teach courses year round.

I: How do you measure the organisation’s success rate?

A: For us, our success rate looks very different than other educational nonprofits. We aren’t looking for all of our students to attend Ivy League colleges and graduate with 4.0’s. And that’s not to say that the students couldn’t achieve that, but that may not be their ultimate goal for themselves. We want our students to find their passions and have the resources and confidence to chase after their goals.

It can be very isolating to grow up in rural America and then try and jump into a four-year college program far away from home. We measure our success by how many students participate in our program, how many teachers get trained through our program, and the impact that they make with the resources that we equip them with.

We know that not all of our students will want to pursue careers in STEM, but we look to encourage them in any path they want to take. It’s really about how we impact a tribal community more than it is about the numbers of students we get checking off certain boxes that others may feel are important.

“Coding is an excellent skill to have because you don’t need to attend college to get a job in tech, and many jobs are remote, meaning that you do not have to leave your community in order to get a good job,” said Toney. © Lab 29

I: What are the usual challenges that come up when running Lab 29?

A: Right now we are really just a team of two–myself and Aaron. It is challenging because we split the work between the two of us and we both have full-time jobs. We are also located on the east coast, and we work mainly with tribes out west.

We knew going into this that it would be challenging to work with Native American communities since neither Aaron nor I am Native American. While this has caused some roadblocks in our progress, for the most part, this has not been the main issue. We are very open about who we are, our motivation behind our work, and we listen to the needs of the communities we speak to.

I: Can you share future plans within the year? What is your ultimate goal for the organisation and what do you hope for Lab 29 to become?

A: Our plans for this year are to run a program in collaboration with Zero Robotics, which is sponsored by MIT, NASA, and several other organizations. We hope to get enough middle school students to participate so that they can compete in the robotics competition representing the Navajo Nation.The five-week STEM curriculum introduces students to computer programming, robotics, and space engineering, and provides hands-on experience programming SPHERES (Synchronized, Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites).

The program culminates in a tournament where winning teams’ SPHERES compete aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Middle school participants will get to see the SPHERES operate in space via a live feed from the ISS while NASA astronauts provide real-time commentary.

Student participants compete to win a technically challenging game by programming their strategies into the SPHERES. Students’ programs control the satellites’ speed, rotation, and direction of travel. The students program their satellites to complete competition objectives, for example navigating obstacles, while conserving resources such as fuel.

Share the positive!