Native American engineering students explore career paths at Los Alamos

Aspiring engineers from North Dakota tour the Laboratory, meet with mentors

April 19, 2022

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Students visiting the Proton Radiography facility at the Laboratory.

A thousand miles may be a long way for a school field trip, but Los Alamos National Laboratory professionals teamed with faculty and students from North Dakota’s tribal colleges to make it happen this March.

“As an Indigenous Lab employee, I am extremely pleased to be able to show these students the variety of work that is critical to our nation,” said Darren Harvey, Laboratory employee and co-chair of its American Indian Employee Resource Group. “Increasing STEM awareness within the Indigenous community is paramount to creating a diverse and unique workforce at the Laboratory. I am grateful to be part of this program and thankful for my colleagues who made this possible.”

The tour of facilities and career opportunities was organized by Harvey and fellow Laboratory employees Tommy Rockward and Chris Wetteland.

Paying it forward

Wetteland said he was motivated to introduce the students to Los Alamos because he began his career at the Laboratory as a student himself, an experience he describes as life-changing.

“I’m really proud of the work we’re doing to create positive experiences for these students,” Wetteland said. “It’s just a wonderful thing, and I’m blown away by the support of the resource group’s members.”

Guests were pre-engineering students and faculty from four North Dakota institutions: Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt; United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck; Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten; and Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates. Along with the Laboratory, these institutions have formed the Advanced Synergistic Program for Indigenous Research in Engineering (ASPIRE) Consortium.

The National Nuclear Security Administration of the Department of Energy, of which the Laboratory is a part, seeks to increase representation of minorities in STEM fields and notes that Native Americans comprise 2% of the U.S. population but .4 % of the engineering workforce.

“Working with this consortium has been very exciting,” Rockward said. “We're hopeful this visit to our facilities will promote and encourage students’ participation in the numerous opportunities here at the Lab.”

Five-year plan

Over the course of five years, Los Alamos staff will focus on supporting R&D and academic activities established by the consortium’s academic partners, and on providing opportunities to build inclusive and mutually beneficial partnerships and collaborations. Laboratory staff are currently developing curriculum and projects in advanced manufacturing and 3D printing to get students interested in STEM and prepared for Laboratory internships.

The consortium is also developing an outreach academy to provide opportunities for students to take engineering courses, attend seminars by staff from various national laboratories and work on research projects at their college campuses. The academy will begin in May 2022 and run through the summer.

This consortium and the Partnership for Advanced Manufacturing Education and Research are two new consortia aimed at fostering careers for Native students in STEM. The Partnership for Advanced Manufacturing Education and Research includes Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, NM, Nebraska Indian Community College in South Sioux City, University of Texas--El Paso and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque. Both consortia are part of the Minority-Serving Institution Partnership Program of the National Nuclear Security Administration. 

A tour for the partnership’s students and faculty is slated for later this spring.