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Leadership academy opens STEM possibilities for Native students
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Leadership academy opens STEM possibilities for Native students

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For a small group of Native students, this week was about science and leadership and culture, about peering into the future at possibilities they may not yet have considered.

“It’s important for everyone to have role models, to have a vision beyond where you are,” said Chris Cornelius, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. “Through this, you’re able to see something that goes beyond your current box. ... You’re given a vision and maybe you are given hope.”

This, during a sultry summer week in Nebraska, is the Sovereign Native Youth STEM Leadership Academy, a partnership between the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and UNL's Mid-American Transportation Center.

The weeklong academy teaches leadership skills, celebrates Native culture and offers a look into the possibilities of STEM majors.

This is the seventh year the Commission on Indian Affairs has offered the leadership academy, but it’s the first year the organization has partnered with the transportation center, a consortium of various Midwestern universities and colleges that supports transportation research and STEM careers.

That means this year’s academy focused more on science, technology, engineering and math, fields where Natives and other minority groups are under-represented.

Cornelius, the first Native student to earn a chemical engineering degree at Montana State University and the first to earn his doctorate in chemical engineering from Virginia Tech, said it’s important for students to see role models in such fields.

Larry Rilett, a distinguished professor of civil engineering at UNL and director of the transportation center, said the center has offered “Roads, Rails and Race Cars” after-school programs at several Lincoln middle schools and hopes to expand those programs to Nebraska’s Native reservations.

To that end, they invited teachers from Santee, Omaha Nation and Winnebago schools to help teach 11 high school students from the reservations and schools in Omaha and Lincoln.

In addition to expanding the after-school programs, organizers hope to offer the summer leadership academy to high school students in Kansas and South Dakota.

Students spent the week soaking up experiences and making video diaries of what they’d learned.

They walked along a portion of the Chief Standing Bear Trail in Southeast Nebraska, the path traversed by members of the Ponca Tribe when they were forced from their homeland in 1877. They considered how it became a railroad and eventually a recreational trail given back to the tribe.

They stayed in UNL suites and spent Sunday talking with a university scientist about stem cells.

They participated in an opening ceremony led by a tribal elder and toured the UNL campus to learn what it would be like to be a student.

They met state Sen. Tom Brewer and toured the Nebraska Capitol. They visited the law college, biological science engineering labs and the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum.

They operated driving simulators at the University of Nebraska Medical Center mind and brain health labs and met with executives from Union Pacific and BNSF Railway.

And Thursday, they pondered the physics and engineering principles required to build a trailer that could carry weight while being pulled through water by a remote-control boat — then put their trailers to the test in the water.

“This really helps me think about what I want to do, in fact,” said Landon Heaton, who will be a junior at Omaha North High School.

Gabe Bruguier, a doctoral student and educational program coordinator of the transportation center, said that’s the point.

“We don’t just want them to leave with T-shirts and polo shirts. We want them to leave with ideas for what they can do for themselves and their tribes in the future."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or

On Twitter @LJSreist.


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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a recovering education reporter now writing about local and county government and the people who live in the city where she was born and raised.

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