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MISSOULA, Mont. — A University of Montana program aimed at elevating Native Americans in STEM education has secured a $250,000 gift from the Cognizant Foundation.

The Montana American Indians in Math and Science program — known as MT AIMS — provides early exposure to STEM fields for middle and high school level Native students and supports their transition to higher education, building an accessible pathway to college and careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The Cognizant Foundation support also will help the university launch the Indigenous First-Year Experience program, which will debut for the 2022-23 academic year. That program will foster a supportive cohort of first-year American Indian students while connecting them with critical resources to ensure a successful start to their college experience.

“These initiatives address the fact that Native American students face barriers to higher education and that Native American students are far less likely than their non-Native peers to major in a STEM field,” Aaron Thomas, associate professor of chemistry and director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education at the University of Montana, said in a statement.

MT AIMS starts at the middle school level, when student interest in math and science begins to decrease. Only one-third of Native students are considered math and science proficient by the end of eighth grade. By 10th grade, even fewer are proficient in these areas and continue to fall behind their non-Native peers.

Entering its fifth year, MT AIMS provides opportunities for students from Montana’s tribal reservations to engage in STEM activities through free on-campus summer programming and academic year follow-up visits to students’ home schools.

Middle school students begin in Gatherings, a 10-day immersion into STEM disciplines that includes computer assembly and community building through residential living on campus and fun evening and weekend activities. Middle school students return for Journeys, a five-day residential program where they dive deeper into a single STEM discipline.

High school students attend Pathways, a 12-day program of morning classes and project-based learning, such as building solar cars or rockets. High school graduates then participate in summer programming before their freshman year, preparing them for their college experience.

Thomas said MT AIMS has been enthusiastically embraced, with the camp growing exponentially to capacity each summer. Nineteen students enrolled in the first camp as middle schoolers in 2019. The 2022 camp had 85 students in grades six through 10 participate. Next summer will see the first cohort of Pathways students in 11th and 12th grades. The program’s vision is to serve 500 students each year in the next ten years.

The university’s new Indigenous First-Year Experience includes a freshman seminar class, weekly study tables and tutoring, and mentoring by peers, faculty and tribal community members.

“We are so grateful for this gift from the Cognizant Foundation,” Thomas said. “Their support helps build an accessible pathway to college and careers in STEM fields.” 

The foundation is a philanthropic offshoot of Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp, multinational information technology services and consulting company. Since its founding in 2018, the Cognizant Foundation has served historically excluded communities through the delivery of industry-relevant education, technical skills training programs and critical research needed to modernize the ways we educate and employ our workforce.

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