Engaging Native American Students in Open Source Software Development

How the Four Corners Science and Computing Club Aims to Increase Representation in Computing

The Four Corners Science and Computing Club, led by Greg Caporaso at Northern Arizona University and Joslynn Lee at Fort Lewis College, along with other faculty, staff, and students, is part of an effort to increase interest in and awareness of the role of computers in science before students get to college. This effort aims to illuminate pathways into open source scientific software development for Native American* (see footnote) middle school, high school, and college students in the “Four Corners” region of the U.S. (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona), with the long-term goal of increasing representation and inclusion of Native Americans in the field. This project is supported by CZI’s Essential Open Source Software for Science program. Below is a blog post written by Greg and Joslynn about the impact of this program.

The Four Corners Science and Computing Club (4CSCC) is building towards increasing the representation and inclusion of Native American students in the open source scientific community, bringing culturally relevant hands-on computer science training to Native American students to make the pathways to STEM careers more accessible.

Mentoring in Native American communities is a core cultural practice in which the entire community contributes to raising and teaching children. Implementing a culturally responsive learning environment for Native American students in the classroom starts with mentoring and relationship-building between students, teachers, and among students themselves. We believe that intentional partnership and mentorship can have a massive reach and impact on students’ lives and their families and communities, which is why we’re building toward increasing the representation and inclusion of Native Americans in open source scientific computing.

4CSCC aims to develop engaging hands-on activities that integrate computing and scientific methodology in projects that are directly relevant to students’ lives. Building connections with Native American students while encouraging their exploration of STEM results in a more positive attitude towards computing and interest in it as a future career path. Our team has connections with schools in tribal communities throughout the U.S. and is developing collaborations with other teams and organizations with related goals.

Students working on their kits at the workshop. Photo courtesy of NAU Marketing.

By traveling to schools, conferences, and hosting workshops on campus, we have observed firsthand their excitement for STEM. These are comments from middle and high school students who attend a primarily Navajo-serving school after a November 2022 workshop hosted at Northern Arizona University (NAU):

“I liked [putting] a computer together and learning about the computer.”

“What I liked about this session was building a computer with my friends.“

“I liked the presentation and putting the computer together by ourselves.“

In a typical workshop, we begin with a brief introduction to the event and instructor team and a discussion of the importance of computation to modern and future science. Physical computing and robotics are effective approaches that excite young people about computing. Therefore, our workshops involve students assembling a Raspberry Pi 400 in a custom kit designed by the 4CSCC team that includes various types of hardware and software.

The kit students use to put the computer together includes a Raspberry Pi 400 (which is a Raspberry Pi 4 built into a keyboard), a mouse, a 7-inch monitor, a SparkFun Qwiic pHat Extension, which provides easy access to the Raspberry Pi’s signature 40-pin GPIO array, and a collection of data sensors and single and multi-color LEDs, which vary in the complexity of their connection to the Pi. Photo courtesy of NAU Marketing.

We later have students wire a single-color LED and write a program to flash the LED using Scratch 3, a visual programming language designed for teaching programming and with libraries supporting hardware integration on the Raspberry Pi platform.

Our workshops are typically led by teams of science professors, undergraduate, and graduate students, some of whom are Native American, who assist with hands-on activities and building kits. We always start with one of our Native American instructors giving a short introduction focused on their career pathway and how computers enable their science. They will share aspects of their identity to help students get to know relatable role models who they can connect with culturally. We’ve found this is key to building trust and sparking curiosity, which ultimately inspires some of the students to follow a path toward computing in science.

Greg Caporaso and his team develop cutting-edge bioinformatics software while teaching bioinformatics and scientific computing to support the next generation of researchers in the field. Photo courtesy of NAU Marketing.

Next, we typically have students connect sensors to their computers, including temperature, air pressure, humidity, volatile organic compounds (VOC), and particulate matter (PM), for data collection exercises focused on air quality. Students load a dashboard built for this purpose by the 4CSCC team on their Raspberry Pi computers. During longer events, we guide students through experimental design and execution, focused on what may or may not impact the air quality measured by the different sensors.

We conclude the workshop with a second Native American instructor sharing their journey to computer science, as well as a quick discussion of career opportunities in STEM and opportunities for financial assistance for prospective Native American college students. For example, both Northern Arizona University and Fort Lewis College provide free tuition to Native Americans.

Students experiment with approaches for manipulating readings from data sensors. In this photo, a temperature and humidity sensor is being manipulated by cupping it in an individual’s hand. Photo courtesy of NAU Marketing.

In our workshops, we ask the students for ideas on how they might be able to use computing to improve their lives, their homes, or their communities. We hope to ultimately bring students’ ideas to fruition in new computing lab exercises and even in real-world applications of computing. For example, a student pitched an idea of using float levels and lights to indicate when livestock water tanks are empty or near empty in a way that could be visualized when driving by on an adjacent road. This would reduce the time needed to monitor these tanks for ranching families while also alerting them to problems (e.g., if a tank is empty earlier than expected, that can save livestock lives by alerting the family to the problem). By encouraging students to develop the project ideas, we hope to ensure that the content will be interesting, relevant, and motivating to future students and seed even more exciting ideas.

One of our key challenges is that schools we hope to connect with have varying ranges of available resources, from schools with fully equipped computer labs, fast and reliable internet connections, and science classrooms with attached greenhouses to schools with outdated computer hardware and limited Internet bandwidth. Students’ computer access at home is also highly variable.

To address these challenges, we have developed our own portable equipment to bring to schools to standardize the experience and therefore, our curriculum and preparation. In previous workshops, we have also shipped computer kits and cellular WiFi hotspots to students who attended remotely. It ultimately may make sense for us to develop a mobile computing lab that we can bring to schools to provide a consistent and exciting experience for students while minimizing setup time and bespoke curriculum development for schools based on their available resources. This could be a trailer or school bus outfitted with desks, computing, and science lab supplies.

So far we have held seven half-day workshops at Navajo Nation schools and Northern Arizona University. We’re proud that these events have served students ranging from middle school through college. And separately, we hosted a college hackathon at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) National Conference in October 2022. We have also held two “train-the-trainer” sessions at NAU, where our lead instruction team trains additional individuals to co-teach and ultimately lead their own 4CSCC events at their own institutions. Ultimately, we hope former 4CSCC learners eventually become trainers and leaders, navigating the new generation to their own future that meaningfully increases the representation of Native Americans in open source scientific computing.

FOOTNOTE: *How we use the term Native American: There is no standard descriptor for identifying those who call themselves American Indian, American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN), Indigenous, or Native. The terms are used interchangeably and are based on preference of the communities and individuals themselves. Indigenous peoples have individual preferences on how they would like to be addressed. We are aware of the variation among the 500+ tribal nations in the United States and respect the differences in their traditions, cultures, languages, and worldviews.

Learn more about CZI’s work in Open Science.

Greg Caporaso is a Professor of Biology and Computer Science at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. With formal training in both biochemistry and computer science, he got involved with bioinformatics software engineering early in his career. His most widely known project is QIIME 2, which is the most broadly used platform for microbiome data science. Greg is most excited about making powerful scientific computing tools accessible to users with diverse backgrounds, which he believes can increase the pace of scientific progress toward solving global problems.

Joslynn Lee is enrolled Pueblo of Laguna (K’awaika) and is also of Pueblo of Acoma (Haaku) and Navajo (Diné) tribal affiliation. She is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO, USA. Prior to her current appointment at FLC, she was a Data Science Educator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center and Science Education Fellow at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Her experience in the areas of computational chemistry/biology encouraged her to develop research opportunities in microbiome research and genomics in a culturally appropriate manner.



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