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Workshop participants in Guam

Workshop participants in Guam. Credit: Michael Hadfield

Recently, representatives from islands across the Pacific gathered on Guam to develop approaches to increase participation of Pacific Islanders in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

Michael Hadfield, biology professor emeritus at the Pacific Biosciences Research Center, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and Joni Quenga Kerr, associate professor of science at Guam Community College were awarded a collaborative grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation to fund a two-day workshop entitled, “Reducing Cultural Barriers to STEM for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.”

Now more than ever, Hadfield and Kerr noted that Pacific Island nations require knowledge and skills to deal with environmental changes that threaten their lands.

“Pacific Islanders, including Native Hawaiians, are one of four ethnic groups recognized by the U.S. National Science Foundation as badly underrepresented in members trained professionally in science and math,” said Hadfield. “Yet, with the very earth and ocean changing around them, the peoples of the Pacific Islands are at the forefront of climate change and thus urgently in need of people from their own cultures trained to recognize and determine ways to cope with climate-change effects,” he added.

A similar workshop held in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi in June 2016, revealed that cultural influences, such as chief systems, religion and family ties and obligations, often affected students’ willingness to enter and to progress in completing STEM college degrees.

“We continued the discussion to understand cultural aspects that hinder students seeking STEM degrees, and looked at ways to develop practical, applicable, and most of all acceptable ways that encourage community support for these students,” said Kerr. “These are sensitive issues, so it was very important for us to identify participants who have sway or influence in their communities.”

Guam Community College and UH Mānoa hosted 18 participants from Hawaiʻi, American Samoa, Yap, Pohnpei, Kosrae, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Rota, Saipan, and Guam at the workshop, including a mayor, senator, leaders of non-governmental organizations, teachers, and cultural practitioners. Also assisting with the workshop were Dawn Chang, a professional facilitator from Hawaiʻi, and Amanda Simcox from the National Science Foundation.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Cultural differences are not barriers for Pacific Island students. We have crossed the ocean and communicated with each other for thousands of years. The barrier is affording to embark on and complete such costly voyages in STEM degrees and careers.

    1. I am afraid we were not sufficiently clear in stating the full goals of the workshop, nor the reason it was convened. I urge you to read the report on the 2016 workshop, held at UH Manoa, that preceded the one this summer in Guam. It is posted online at: http://www.pbrc.hawaii.edu/stem/Final%20Draft%209-27-16.pdf

      The barriers to STEM education we were discussing were definitely not between cultures, but between cultural traditions and practices and students studying math and science in schools and colleges and entering careers in related fields. All of the participants — from American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, FSM (Kosrae, Pohnpie and Yap), Palau, Guam, Northern Marianas, and Hawaii — were in agreement that issues such as family traditions and cultural divisions within (not between) each island group may discourage young people from their communities from undertaking math and science courses and entering professions that require such studies. The workshop participants engaged fully in discussions about ways to remove or reduce such barriers, and, I think, may good progress.

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