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How a rural tribe uses STEM to support traditional practices

In 2019, a group of eager tribal members approached the Waccamaw Siouan leaders, proposing the start of a STEM education initiative in the tribal community called STEM Studio.

The most recent initiative, which kicked off earlier this month, allowed these tribal leaders to connect the growing need for STEM education with its traditional tribal practices for students.

With jobs in STEM expected to grow by 8% by 2029, the STEM Studio was designed with an intent to encourage interest in STEM among tribal youth.

The most recent STEM Studio initiative is the “Build a Wigwam” competition, supported by the Corning Foundation. Wigwams are traditional dome-shaped homes made of natural materials. These were common, semi-permanent dwellings used by Indigenous peoples across the United States.

For this competition, students were instructed to create sustainable, durable wigwam replicas no larger than one foot in diameter. To test this, the wigwams were judged on a number of criteria, including hurricane and earthquake tests, whether it used 100% sustainable material, and whether the wigwam design was realistic. 

Students used materials like grapevines, tree branches, and bark. Several wigwams were interactive, including one that replicates a “damper” on the top and a string that you pull down.

The wigwam display featured a replica “village,” complete with miniature figurines to display Waccamaw Siouan families. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

Ashley Lomboy, Director of the STEM Studio, says the response to the project was overwhelming. For Lomboy, the STEM Studio is about creating accessible STEM education opportunities for tribal youth, including those who don’t live in or near the tribal territory.

For this “Build a Wigwam” competition, remote students were encouraged to film themselves completing the tests. Because of this commitment to accessibility, tribal members from across the country submitted wigwam replicas to the competition, including a family from Virginia. 

“Because we had such great, great input from the community, I said, you know, we really should try to showcase and really celebrate the kids and what they accomplished,” Lomboy said.

From there, she reached out to the Columbus County Arts Council to plan an exhibition for the wigwams. The STEM Studio was also able to secure a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. 

The projects were divided into three categories for judging: elementary, middle school, and high school. Winners received prizes ranging from gift cards and Discovery science kits to Apple iPads and scholarships, sponsored by the Waccamaw Siouan tribe. 

A guest samples Yaupon Tea provided by Yaupon Tea, Co. at the Build a Wigwam exhibit. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

The exhibit featured the display of the wigwams and music from a Kaya Littleturtle – a traditional singer and songwriter from Robeson County. For Lomboy, the event was about showcasing current and traditional aspects of Indigenous culture, so the STEM Studio also partnered with Yaupon Tea Co. out of Wilmington, N.C. to provide samples of Yaupon tea. 

Samplings of the Yaupon plant were on display at the exhibit in Whiteville, N.C. Cheyenne McNeill/EducationNC

The Yaupon holly shrub is native to the southeastern United States and was previously used by Indigenous peoples for ritual and medicinal purposes. Today, it is used for its natural caffeine and antioxidant properties.

Lomboy said this was an opportunity to allow tribal members to connect with a part of their history. 

“These wigwams were in the 1600s and 1700s and what we would have lived in,” Lomboy said. “I thought it would be really cool if we could get Yaupon tea served because it was a part of the green corn ceremony for this region.”

The Waccamaw Siouan STEM Studio has organized over 12 programs since its inception. From the start, the leaders intended to expose tribal members — no matter the age — to STEM education. Projects have included competitions, enrichment days, and more.

With 44 participants, this was the largest showing of participants since the program’s beginning in 2019.

The STEM Studio organizes events through its Facebook page to increase reach. Its next event is the Community Yacunne (fish) Camp in April where tribal members are encouraged to learn best fishing practices, including proper practices from pond to plate. This is followed by the Waccamaw Siouan STEM Studio MarineQuest Day with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in May.