Giving Thanks and Learning through Experience

Science in the Public Eye

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, and many among us were fortunate to spend it with friends, family, good food, and warm fires. As the legend goes, the harvest of 1621 in nearby Plymouth was bountiful, in no small part due to Squanto, a young Wampanoag man who taught the Pilgrims to fish and grow corn. In celebration, the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims had a Thanksgiving feast together to strengthen their friendship and enjoy their harvest.

The holiday celebrates a few key American principles: that great rewards can be achieved through hard work, that celebration can be a wonderful bond between friends and family, and that two dissimilar groups of people can achieve more together than they can separately. For many of these reasons, President Abraham Lincoln officially established Thanksgiving as a national holiday to renew the bonds of friendship between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War.

But just as the holiday marks some of our greatest strengths, it also serves as a reminder of some of our greatest shortcomings. While the original Thanksgiving feast was a testament to the bond between Native Americans and colonists, the next few centuries were continuously marred by war, forced relocation, and disenfranchisement. Today, 14.9 percent of Native Americans have neither a high school diploma nor a GED by age 24. Over 58 percent of Native American women face physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, compared with the national average of 35.6 percent. Finally, Native American preventable deaths due to alcoholism are 627 percent higher, due to suicide 72 percent higher, and due to accidents 204 percent higher than the national average. I say this not to admonish our country, but rather as a patriotic American. It’s just as much our duty to remember our wrongs, learn from them, and attempt to right them as it is to build on our strengths. Some of the brightest hopes for the future lie in a several Native American leaders who seek to better their communities and the country through science and education.

I have had the great pleasure of speaking with Commander John B. Herrington, the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space. Commander Herrington was selected with the 16th class of astronauts in 1996 and served as a Mission Specialist on STS-113. He additionally has clocked in over 4,500 hours of flight time and served as commander of the NEEMO 6 underwater mission. He retired from the Astronaut Corps in 2005 and is currently completing a Ph.D. at the University of Idaho, studying how to motivate kids in math and science education through experiential learning. Despite an incredible résumé, Commander Herrington was kind and humble, and his story was instantly relatable.

Commander Herrington described entering college as the first in his family, studying biology and chemistry but spending much of his time in the outdoors and rock climbing. He was suspended for low grades and returned home to work on a surveying crew. As a skilled rock climber, he was put to work ascending and descending cliffs, where he held a prism that reflected an infrared beam of light emanating from a survey instrument near the base of the cliff.

His job involved subjects that had bored him in school, like physics and trigonometry, and gave them a direct application that made them understandable and useful to learn. With great encouragement from his supervisor, he returned to school with a renewed appreciation for learning and got top marks the second time around. Herrington even ended up becoming a math tutor for a retired naval aviator, who encouraged him to apply to Officer Candidate School to become a naval officer. He returned to school to get a master’s in aeronautical engineering and was accepted to the Astronaut Corps. From humble beginnings suspended from on the side of a cliff, Commander Herrington performed three space walks suspended over 200 miles above Earth.

Commander Herrington achieves incredible heights and was originally motivated to do so not in the classroom, but outdoors learning through experience. His goal is to provide young students of today with the same opportunities he had, to motivate them to careers in math and science through experience. His doctoral research will investigate the effectiveness of using experiential education to motivate Native American students to take courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. He believes that Native American cultural values of intrinsic learning, storytelling, and learning through collaboration rather than competition are keys to effective learning.

There are countless other Native leaders in science and education, and I could write a column for each. While native communities have made great progress towards equal opportunity, there is still much work left to be done, and it is everyone’s responsibility to work toward a future in which all have an equal opportunity for success. Much of that gap can be closed with a strong focus on science and education. Four hundred years ago, Squanto educated the Pilgrims in agriculture so that they could live and eventually turn this region into the most thriving center of education and innovation in the world. Today, Commander Herrington is one of many incredible Native American leaders who are using science and education to transform the native community and the United States, and that is something we can all be thankful for.

Jack M. Cackler is a Ph.D. candidate in biostatistics.