Marta R. Metelko
John Ira Petty
Johnson Space Center, Houston
November 4, 2003
NASA Develops Tribal College Engineering Programs
None of the 34 Native American tribal colleges scattered across 12 states offers a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering. Lee Snapp of NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston is working hard to change that.
Snapp is beginning the second year of a two-year assignment to the Salish Kootenai College at Pablo, Mont., on the Flathead Indian Reservation. He is working with tribal colleges, government agencies, engineering societies and others toward establishing a common effort and goals to foster technical education, particularly engineering.
"NASA is committed to development of the next generation of space explorers, scientists and engineers by encouraging young people to study technical subjects," said Jefferson D. Howell Jr., Johnson Space Center Director. "NASA is also aggressively pursuing a more diversified workforce."
Early in his two-year assignment, Snapp and colleagues surveyed the 34 tribal colleges, many of them two-year institutions. Initially, six expressed interest in development of engineering or pre-engineering curriculums. Today 11 colleges, including two four-year institutions, are directly involved in the effort.
Goals of the project include establishing at least one degree-granting engineering program at one or more of the colleges, perhaps at Salish Kootenai College, where Snapp serves as dean of engineering. Another goal is to establish common pre-engineering standards to enable students to transfer seamlessly among tribal institutions that will develop engineering programs, and to make it easier for students to transfer to non-tribal universities for graduate studies.
As the effort progresses, information and lessons learned are shared among the partners. "The answers are exciting, complex and will require study," said Snapp, who holds a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy and a master's in astronautics from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He retired from the Air Force to join NASA in 1989.
"Tribal colleges are founded in native cultures. They have different priorities and ways of doing business that must be honored," Snapp said. "Native culture is not always consistent with the way we do business at NASA, but we are working very well together. Reaching out to Native Americans by going to them is critical."
While there are challenges, there are advantages that can be used to meet them. One, Snapp said, is the support he has received from Native Americans at JSC. He cited contributions by astronaut John Herrington and Jerry C. Elliott, an engineer in the Shuttle Program Office.
Another is the welcome he has received from the Native American community. "They have met me more than halfway," Snapp explained. That community's elders, people with wisdom, understanding and knowledge, have been especially supportive of these efforts, as have the tribal college presidents, he added.
While many challenges remain, Snapp said he is encouraged by what already has been accomplished. "This is an exciting, ambitious program. JSC, Salish Kootenai College and its partners have taken leadership roles and will make substantial contributions in educating the next generation of engineers," he said.
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