Linguistics program gives Indigenous students a head start in STEM


Two University of Oregon linguistics professors have received funding from the National Science Foundation for a collaborative seminar, Research Experiences for Undergraduates, which will take place over three summers.

Melissa Baese-Berk and Gabriela Pérez Báez developed the program to provide opportunities to engage in linguistic research for students who have limited or no access or opportunities to pursue majors in science, technology , engineering and mathematics, known as STEM.

Thanks to the $342,051 grant, research experiences for undergraduate students began this summer and will run again for eight weeks each summer for the next two years, hosting a group of eight self-identifying students. as American Indians or Alaska Natives. By teaching broadly applicable research skills and using linguistics as a lens, the program opens the door for students to engage in research across all STEM fields.

Baese-Berk and Pérez Báez leverage students’ interests in their own native languages ​​to teach them research skills they can use in many other disciplines. Program participants are students from institutions across the country without linguistics departments or who lack extensive undergraduate research opportunities.

“This first iteration of the REU Language UO site has made tangible the systemic barriers that reduce access to STEM fields for many, including Native American and Alaska Native students,” said Pérez Báez. “We are committed to doing our part to reduce these barriers, at least in our institution. »

This summer’s program consisted of a week on Zoom and the remaining seven weeks on campus. Each summer session ends with poster presentations that present each student’s research project in the field of linguistics.

Baese-Berk said a key outcome of the first summer session was the sense of community students found with each other during their time at UO. Students took classes in the mornings, spent research in the afternoons, and attended workshops on a variety of professional development and academic topics.

The program has been enriched by several campus partners, including OU Libraries, the Tutoring and Academic Engagement Center, and the Holden Center.

“Linguistics is truly interdisciplinary, so we’re able to create an introduction to what a career in STEM might look like and how students can get on their way to it,” Baese-Berk said.

The larger goal of the project for Baese-Berk and Pérez Báez is to provide a context for Native American and Alaska Native students to explore careers in STEM through the lens of linguistics and show how language is a collaboration. with a variety of disciplines. Research in the Department of Linguistics has three main areas of focus: linguistic documentation, language revitalization, and the experimental approach to linguistic research, all of which are in touch with the interests of American and Native communities.

“Because our department has expertise in these three areas, we are able to offer courses that not only highlight linguistics, but also showcase STEM through the specific lens that many of our visiting students are interested in” , said Baese-Berk. “We integrate students’ existing interests in their native languages ​​to use as a way to interface with STEM and other disciplines, including anthropology, biology, ecology, and even botany.”

Baese-Berk said the project also aims to connect students to Indigenous communities so they can see themselves succeeding. This summer, students traveled to the coast to harvest sea asparagus with the Coquille Indian Tribe, and Base-Berk points out that hands-on opportunities like this are vital to the program’s long-term goals.

“Our hope is that by working with students each summer, there can be a shift in this underrepresentation such that these students become more represented in STEM fields in general,” Baese-Berk said. “The perspective of Western Europe is limited not only to students who might have different experiences, but also to our exploration in general. Our goal is to improve science and not only to change the experiences of these students, but also to bring about change in STEM in general. »

By Victoria Sanchez, College of Arts and Sciences


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