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University of Montana Native Excellence Programs receives $250K gift

STEM student
Posted at 1:56 PM, Nov 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-11 15:56:36-05

MISSOULA – University of Montana programs that support the success of Montana’s Native American population through STEM and higher education have received a $250,000 gift from the Cognizant Foundation.

The gift ensures the continued growth and sustainability of the Montana American Indians in Math and Science program. Known as MT AIMS, the program provides early exposure to STEM fields for Native middle and high school students and supports students’ transition to higher education, helping build an accessible pathway to college and careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The Cognizant Foundation support also will help UM launch the Indigenous First-Year Experience program, new for the 2022-23 academic year. That program will foster a supportive cohort of first-year American Indian students while connecting them with critical resources to ensure a successful start to their college experience.

“These initiatives address the fact that Native American students face barriers to higher education and that Native American students are far less likely than their non-Native peers to major in a STEM field,” said Aaron Thomas, a UM associate professor of chemistry and director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education.

MT AIMS starts at the middle school level, when student interest in math and science begin to decrease. Only a third of Native students are considered math and science proficient by the end of eighth grade. By 10th grade, even fewer are proficient in these areas and continue to fall behind their non-Native peers.

Entering its fifth year, MT AIMS provides opportunities for students from Montana’s Tribal reservations to engage in STEM activities through free summer programming on the UM campus and academic year follow-up visits to students’ home schools.

Middle school students begin in Gatherings, a 10-day immersion into STEM disciplines that includes computer assembly and community building through residential living on campus and fun evening and weekend activities. Middle school students return for Journeys, a five-day residential program where they dive deeper into a single STEM discipline.

High school students attend Pathways, a 12-day program of morning classes and project-based learning, such as building solar cars or rockets. High school graduates then participate in summer programming before their freshman year, preparing them for their college experience.

Thomas said MT AIMS has been enthusiastically embraced, with the camp growing exponentially to capacity each summer. Nineteen students enrolled in the first camp as middle schoolers in 2019. The 2022 camp saw 85 students in grades six through 10 participate. Next summer will see the first cohort of Pathways students in 11th and 12th grades. Within a decade the program’s vision is to serve 500 students annually.

UM’s new Indigenous First-Year Experience includes a freshman seminar class, weekly study tables and tutoring, and mentoring by peers, faculty and tribal community members.

“We are so grateful for this gift from the Cognizant Foundation,” Thomas said. “Their support helps build an accessible pathway to college and careers in STEM fields.”

Since its founding in 2018, the Cognizant Foundation has served historically excluded communities through the delivery of industry-relevant education, technical skills training programs and critical research needed to modernize the ways we educate and employ our workforce.

UM has a longtime partnership with ATG, a Cognizant company founded and based in Missoula, which provides consulting and implementation services focused on the Salesforce Platform. Their work together includes a joint program that provides upskilling to Montanans to prepare them to work for companies like ATG and Cognizant.

“The University of Montana has been an integral part of Cognizant ATG’s growth, and we are thrilled Cognizant has invested in the University’s MT AIMS and Indigenous First-Year Experience programs to bolster pathways to college and STEM careers for Native American students across the state of Montana,” said Tom Stergios, ATG senior vice president of strategy, IP and offerings.

MT AIMS and Indigenous First Year Experience programs support UM’s focus on student success and its goal to steward its Excellence in Native American Education Plan, which provides a roadmap for UM’s path to inclusive excellence.

The Excellence in Native American Education Plan, together with the work of President Seth Bodnar’s Native American Advisory Council, build upon an already significant array of resources for Native American students at UM. In addition to a dedicated American Indian Student Services department, resources include financial scholarships, cultural clubs, events, mentoring, tutoring, resources referrals and dedicated advising.

For UM’s and the state’s sizable Native American population, the results achieved through the plan and the advisory council are promising. Since 2018, the University’s Native American student enrollment has increased by 26% and Native American student first-to-second-year retention has increased by 17%.

The UM Foundation is an independent nonprofit organization that has inspired philanthropic support to enhance excellence and opportunity at UM since 1950.