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NASA Inspires Students at Native American Reservation
When former U.S. Congressman Louis Stokes heard about the low math and science test scores in his Cleveland school district, he immediately started asking questions. With a NASA research center and a community college in the area, he wondered, why couldn't we supplement the students' educations?

The NASA Glenn Research Center and Cuyahoga Community College responded with a resounding "we can." Educational personnel at Glenn (then NASA Lewis) and the local college fulfilled the congressman's mission by launching the first Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA) in 1993.

Girl wearing NASA space suit The SEMAA program has come a long way since then, adding 23 more sites across 16 states and the District of Columbia. It is the longest running kindergarten through 12th-grade program NASA has ever had.

But this summer, NASA broke new ground when it opened the first SEMAA program situated on a Native American reservation. Sponsored by Oglala Lakota College, the program will serve more than 800 students per year across nine school districts on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Kyle, South Dakota.

Image left: A young Lakota student wears a NASA spacesuit during the SEMAA program dedication at Oglala Lakota College on June 25. Credit: Jason Kim

"Every student has potential, and every child has a talent. The trick is to inspire and enhance those talents," said NASA Glenn Director of External Programs John Hairston. "We brought these resources to the reservation because we believe that Pine Ridge students can do well in science and math."

To inspire children to pursue careers in science, engineering, mathematics and technology, the SEMAA program includes three major components: a Family Café, the SEMAA Curriculum and an Aerospace Education Laboratory. NASA's Family Café involves caregivers by giving them the information and tools they need to support their children's educations.

"We cannot succeed without the parents," Hairston said. "So, we provide a handbook and a coordinator to show the parents how they can help their children learn math and science."

At schools across the reservation, teachers also will learn the NASA SEMAA Curriculum, a series of unique hands-on activities that enhance the schools' science and math curriculums. Each activity is aligned with national science, math and technology standards.

But the most visible component of the program is the Aerospace Education Laboratory, located at Oglala Lakota College. This interactive classroom puts cutting-edge technology at the students' fingertips.

"Kids love the lab," said Glenn's Aerospace Education Laboratory manager Jerry Voltz. "There's nothing in here they can't touch."

Equipped with 10 computer workstations, a flight simulator and a wind tunnel, the lab engages students in real-life challenges involving science, engineering and mathematics. Here, kids can design an aircraft, pilot a simulated flight and take a virtual reality tour of the International Space Station.

Adults and children dance at a graduation ceremony on Pine Ridge Reservation.Image right: Friends and family members of graduating Oglala Lakota Seniors dance at a graduation ceremony. The NASA SEMAA dedication was just one of many activities that took place during the school's graduation weekend. Credit: Jason Kim

The reservation college earned the SEMAA program through a competitive process. The strongest points of the proposal were the college's commitment to sustainability and to serving students who are traditionally underrepresented in science and math-related careers.

When Rep. Stokes asked NASA to support his district's schools in 1993, he had no idea how widespread the impact would be. Since the first program launched at Cuyahoga Community College, SEMAA has served more than 260,000 students, parents and teachers across the country, from metropolitan New York to the wide-open plains of South Dakota.

More Information:
+Visit the NASA SEMAA Web site

Jan Wittry (SGT, Inc.)
NASA's Glenn Research Center