An audience of more than thirty educators sits rapt as Dr. Miranda Haskie, professor at Diné College, relates her experience with technology, culture, and education. Her talk gets to the heart of why they have all gathered at Northern Arizona University’s DuBois Center–many driving or flying from hours away–on a sunny Saturday morning. They are educators and community members from indigenous communities in the American southwest–primarily Navajo Nation and Hopi Nation–who are seeking to understand how to teach technology with and alongside their culture. The summit, titled Acknowledging Culture in 21st Century Learning, is hosted by KARMA–Ke’yah Advanced Rural Manufacturing Alliance–a nonprofit organization founded in the Navajo Nation that is dedicated to “create economic opportunity in Native communities through workforce development and entrepreneurship” (KARMA mission statement).
Morning – Perspectives on culture and technology
Miranda’s keynote address kicks off a morningful of sharing perspectives on the role of culture and technology in indigenous communities. Master of ceremonies, Joe Holgate, starts by situating the discussion in a historical context, contrasting his experience learning in colonizers’ schools aimed at erasing Diné culture with the efforts of indigenous organizations such as KARMA seeking to revitalize local culture and empower the community. Following this Dr. Ben Jones and Keanu Jones, president and director in training of KARMA, turn the audience gaze from the past to the future of what can be accomplished through culturally thoughtful adaptation of technology. This involves both the development of new technologies and the reimagining of the role technology has played, and could play in their lives and in their communities.
The former is demonstrated by Albert Haskie, a young Navajo entrepreneur who developed an app called Adóoneé to aid members of the Diné community in identifying relationships with other community members using the Navajo clan system. Albert believes strongly that coding and Diné culture go hand-in-hand, and presents his case using clear language, approachable examples, and energizing passion. Building on this theme Dr. Arlinda Chandler, member of the Cherokee Nation and board member of KARMA, walks the community through what it means to code with computers and the potential for coding to improve indigenous communities.
This transitions into a roundtable discussion led by the KARMA cultural committee, in which they address a broad range of topics related to culture and technology, from data sovereignty for indigenous communities to the role of AI and rapid manufacturing technologies in education and culture–for example they discuss ability of language models to aid in translation, how this could benefit indigenous communities, and the glaring gap in existing AI technologies that are not trained using the Diné, Hopi, or other indigenous languages.
Lunch break – Celebrating young learners
Following this discussion attendees break for lunch. During this time Katie Magrane, Executive Director Innovation Learning Center, Inc., presents an award to students from Little Singer Community School for their outstanding work as members of the winning alliance in the Zero Robotics challenge. In this challenge, developed by MIT and NASA, student groups from schools all around the country develop and test code that is used on a module–Astrobee–aboard the International Space Station. Groups team up into alliances that span multiple schools and time-zones, and work together to achieve a predetermined goal effectively and efficiently. Two groups from Little Singer were part of the alliances that came in first and second place in the competition. As part of this ceremony Luther Lee, Director of Tribal Engagement at the office of U.S. Senator Mark Kelly, says a few words of congratulations and encouragement for the students of Little Singer and for all the students in indigenous communities of Arizona pursuing STEM learning.
Afternoon – Showing how culture can be interwoven with 21st century learning
The afternoon shifts the activity of the summit from discussion to demonstration. In turn community members and educators share how they teach technology in culturally integrated ways. First up Robyn Davis, a parent from the community, shows how she learned and has seen her children learn coding using Scratch, a free online programming language developed at MIT. Audience members pull up their computers and follow along, learning coding alongside Robyn. Next Jamie Adams, educator at Little Singer Community School, teaches the audience how her teaching community has leveraged indigenous knowledge in teaching the Diné Engineering Design Process. She makes the process of problem solving accessible and fun through sharing a video about a taco party. Following this Robert Hayes, representative from Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, shares how storytelling and STEM can be woven together with Novel Engineering.
At this point the energy increases dramatically as Tom Tomas, teacher at Little Singer Community School, begins a session on Playful Engineering using LEGO SPIKE Prime, aided by the child attendees of the conference! All morning Mr. Tomas led a separate session teaching the kids robotics using SPIKE Prime, and in this session they have a chance to show off what they made and what they learned, through teaching their elders. The room is abuzz with robotic whirring, excited pointing, and joyful laughter. This energy takes us into the final talk of the day, an inspiring primer on advanced technologies such as 3D modeling and artificial intelligence by Mykl Greene, teacher at Saint Michael Indian School. Mykl shows off what his students can manufacture using 3D printing, how they can design it in CAD (computer aided design) software, and finishes by sharing a comedic demonstration of the power of AI technologies to help members of the community (by showing how an illustration AI could draw many different versions of Mr. Greene given the right prompts).
Across all of the afternoon’s demonstrations run a few important threads: the importance of culture, the centrality of play, and the need for flexible, accessible resources in education. To all these points KARMA has been developing a living document titled “Instructional Strategies and Resources for Joyful Culturally Infused Learning – Coding and Engineering Design”, also referred to as the Manual. Each of the presentations drew from a different section of the manual (linked in-line above), which contains concepts, lessons, and resources developed and compiled by KARMA educators and community members. This is just one of many initiatives that the organization is pursuing to weave together technology education and indigenous culture within their community.