Chinle Summer Science Academy Melds Navajo and NASA Astronomical Knowledge

Melba Martin, solar system ambassador to the Navajo Nation from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spent part of the summer watching students in Chinle, Arizona, soak up knowledge about the cosmos and the ancients. This is an account she wrote for the Science Academy in Chinle on the Navajo Reservation. Reprinted with her permission.

The smiles on the children’s faces were ever present in this school district where the wind blows fiercely, the rain is scarce and the nearest Wal-Mart is approximately 90 miles away. The Chinle Unified School District was offering the second annual Science Camp for grades 4–8 on its Chinle Junior High and Chinle High School campuses during June 2012. The anticipation of what was going to happen next was evident within the eyes of the school district’s most highly inquisitive students. The four core teachers and one Navajo Cultural expert from the district’s curriculum center circulated the room, watching for a possible connection in the eyes of their students as science was connected to the winter stories that their grandparents told around the central fireplace hearth of their homes, known as a hogan. Parents of some of the students huddled in the back of the room to watch their child’s first day as a chosen selectee of the very competitive month-long rigorous enrichment program. The students understood when they were given a pre-test to evaluate what they knew before starting. Everyone wanted to know how much knowledge they could acquire in just four short weeks.

Is this a scene of some of the nation’s leading classrooms in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles or Houston? It was not. It was taking place in an area that lacks a library, a science museum and an abundance of contributors to the education of some of the nation’s brightest and most inquisitive students: It was humble Chinle, Arizona.

The Chinle Unified School District is located in the heart of the Navajo Nation and Land of the Dineh, or Navajo People. The community of Chinle (Chin Lee) is 60 miles south of Utah and 30 miles west of New Mexico, in Arizona’s Four Corners region. It is located in the high desert at about 5,500 feet elevation. The community is by Canyon De Chelly, a National Monument, and a beautiful canyon containing rich cultural heritage for the Navajo people.

The Chinle Unified School District Number 24 has seven schools, more than 4,000 students, and is the largest school district on the Navajo Nation in both student count and geographic area. The high school is the largest Native American public high school in the entire United States. School buses travel more than 6,000 miles on routes each day, as they safely transport students to and from their studies. Many of these bus routes are dirt and cross washes, or seasonal streambeds. Even with the mass amount of bus mileage, some of the students walk one mile just to reach a school bus stop.

These are the same students who are here today and eager to learn. So what do Navajo students learn about when they are so far away from all of the science published in traditional science journals? These special students learn about the science of their own land. They learn what is closest and dearest to the traditional teachings of their own home.

Week one is a fast-paced, hands-on classroom experience of concepts and teaching in astronomy, botany, geology and the environment. As the science is introduced, cultural teachings that are thousands of years old are connected to the science knowledge that was just learned within the classroom. The week is only four days long, but the students are very tired as they board the buses to their homes. The teachers remain to reflect on the weeks of teaching.

Week two of the science academy begins. The students eat their breakfast and wait for the buses at Chinle High School. All 40 students, a few parents, the cultural expert, a Navajo scientist and the teachers board the big yellow school bus. The week’s travel will encompass dusty dirt roads, secluded National Parks, deep canyons and an area that the elders say is “Where the star fell.” As the Navajo scientist tells of the plants that can be used for medicine and food, the children nibble with delight as they connect to the plants often seen on the grazing land of their families’ sheep herds. Children and park rangers huddle together in the shade to listen to the story of the coyote (the trickster) and long-ago possibilities of ancient structures in the landscape of their world known as the land of the Dineh’. With each story comes the scientific explanation of weather, erosion, migration of people and food supplies. Within their hearts and eyes, the students already know how they can make a difference on their own land for their own people.

Week three of the science camp brings, a hike by the remnants of an ancient volcano, the discovery of a hidden waterfall near Tec Nos Pos and a delightful trip to a children’s science museum more than three hours away. An unexpected surprise was the introduction of one of the oldest plant collections in the Four Corners area on the grounds of San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico. The collection is rarely seen by the public and is a prized display for the Navajo scientist.

Week four of the science camp means two trips to national parks and student science presentations. Some of the students are timid, but some students are natural presenters as their parents, a representative from Jet Propulsion Labs, the Associate Superintendent of Chinle Unified Schools and the teachers watch with great pride as the students co-present and individually present their prized posters which incorporate their learning from the past four weeks. Pictures are taken, hands shaken, hugs are given and the director of the science academy is pursued by three students as she leaves the room. The only question the students ask her is, “Do you think I will be picked next year for the science academy?” She smiles, gives them a hug and says, “I think you may have a good chance.”

This is the summary of the Chinle Unified School District’s Science Academy for 2012. This is how we educate the scientists for the Navajo Nation, the United States and the rest of the world.


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Chinle Summer Science Academy Melds Navajo and NASA Astronomical Knowledge