Indigenous Research and STEM education

Moses Leavens

Attracting and retaining students in STEM majors, particularly Native students, begins well before they step onto campus. The Indigenous Research and STEM Education (IRSE) department at the University of Montana recognizes this and works to provide interesting opportunities for Native students from middle school through doctoral completion. Under the leadership of new director Dr. Aaron Thomas, IRSE has continued successful programs and developed new ones for Native students in partnership with Montana EPSCoR. Formerly the Native American Research Lab, the new name was adopted to more accurately represent all Indigenous students served by the department (American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and First Nation).


Thomas began in January 2013 and hired program coordinator Jon Stannard in June 2013. To assess community needs and interest, Thomas traveled to all seven Montana reservations to speak with tribal college, high school, and middle school personnel and students. With community input about what services the University has provided that proved successful, and what services are lacking, an action plan is being constructed to improve recruitment and retention of Native students into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields in higher education.


One of Thomas’ new programs was a summer week-long instructional program for reservation middle school students on the Blackfeet Reservation and the Fort Belknap Reservation. Funded by Montana Gear Up, and using local tribal college facilities, Thomas, Stannard, and University of Montana Native American undergraduates excited middle school students with projects that focused on building and launching model rockets; replicating the landing challenges of the Mars Rover (by using eggs to simulate the Rover); constructing tissue paper hot air balloons to demonstrate why hot air promotes lift; and describing how astronauts prepare physically for a space mission. All of the students valued the camp experience highly.


IRSE supports the development of the STEM pipeline in undergraduate and graduate study through a number of programs. Through the “All Nations Alliance for Minority Participation” program (AMP), several UM Native students’ college costs are subsidized with AMP stipend awards from Salish Kootenai College as well as some travel support to events such as the national American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) conference. IRSE is also partnering with the IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program to provide free math tutoring to Native American students, as well as provide research support for a variety of projects currently being conducted by UM Native STEM students.


Montana EPSCoR, through the IoE, continues its support of IRSE for Native students pursuing graduate degrees in STEM disciplines. Currently, five Native American graduate students receive funding for their research in STEM masters and doctorate degrees. Their stories can be viewed on the IRSE web site (


Moses Leavens,a member of the Chippewa/Cree Nation, is one of five Native American students receiving funding for their STEM degrees through IRSE. He is working on a PhD in biochemistry and biophysics.  



MSU IoE Office

Montana State University
605 Leon Johnson Hall
Bozeman, MT 59717
(406) 994-2374
MSU Director: Bruce Maxwell

UM IoE Office

The Universityi of Montana

The University of Montana
Davidson Honors College
Missoula, MT 59812
(406) 243-6058
UM Director: Maury Valett


Montana University System

Montana University System

Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education
2500 Broadway Street
Helena, MT 59620