Penn State consortium bridges scientific, traditional knowledge

University Park, Pa. -- The beauty of nature and the stars at night have fascinated mankind for centuries, but bringing that fascination into the classroom in the academic study of astronomy and natural sciences is difficult. So a recent Penn State conference brought together educators and researchers from across the country to address bridging academic and folk sciences through traditional ecological knowledge.

The retreat, "Synergies in Space and Place: Academic Science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge," sponsored by Penn State's Interinstitutional Consortium for Indigenous Knowledge with Penn State's American Indian Leadership Program, focused on the traditional ecological knowledge of Native Americans. 
Audrey Maretzki, professor emeritus of food science and consortium co-director, said the conference sought out educators who study and validate the knowledge generated in communities, especially by traditional indigenous groups. 
"For the first time at Penn State, we brought together a retreat focused on traditional knowledge and how it relates to the knowledge that is generated by the academy," Maretzki said. "Indigenous knowledge touches many disciplines -- from agriculture to the sciences to communication to education -- and this retreat gave these researchers a very rare opportunity to come together.
"I also thought it was awesome to have speakers whose indigenous knowledge work is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration," she said. "We presented both the Navaho Skies project that NASA is funding and the Chimney Rock indigenous-knowledge work done in naked-eye astronomy -- how to look at the moon and stars and relate to that as your calendar to understand what's going on at various times of the year." 
Melissa Nelson, professor of American Indian studies at San Francisco State University and president of the nonprofit Cultural Conservancy, gave an introduction to traditional ecological knowledge via Skype. Other presenters included Melba Martin, student services director for Chinle (Arizona) Unified School District, and Ron Sutcliffe, an archeoastronomer and author of "Moon Tracks."
Janice Straley, assistant professor of marine biology at the University of Alaska's Sitka campus, spoke on engaging Alaskan and Hawaiian students in marine ecology by using ocean pathways and animal migrations to merge traditional and western sciences as a means of retaining more students. 
"We're working with people who live in communities with the natural world right out their back door, then go to a university setting and hit the wall of taking math and chemistry," Straley said. 
"How does it make sense to someone from a rural community who wants to become a biologist to take classes in their first year that have no connection to where they came from and the things they love? Bridging the gap between those worlds helps students see that they know more than they think they know."
Bruce Martin, course manager and facilitator of the award-winning Penn State course, "Exploring Indigenous Ways of Knowing of the Anishinaabe," described the cultural-immersion course that he sponsors annually with Native American tribes in Minnesota. While students are the primary audience, he said, the course is also useful for academics and community members who may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with bridging indigenous- and classical-knowledge models.
"I don't have to sell the course to students -- it's exceeded enrollment caps every semester," he said. "The Ojibwe community keeps saying 'bring more students,' because there's a real openness and willingness to share the knowledge that they have with outsiders, as well. There's a sense of self-awareness and energy for rediscovering the traditions that have been lost or taken.
"It's a bigger challenge for universities to get 'outside of the box' in our thinking about how we both can provide education. We have a lot going on in these communities today that the universities aren't even aware of."
A presentation by Kevin Slivka, doctoral student in art education, highlighted the work of contemporary Native American artists. The retreat concluded at the Palmer Museum of Art with a gallery talk on ancient Andean pottery by Dana Kletchka.
Maretzki described her own "aha" moment about indigenous knowledge while working on a nutrition project in Kenya in the mid-'90s.
"I became aware of the incredible knowledge that the women there had of the nutrient values of the various foods they were using," she said. "They could select from their environment the things that should be fed to their family members to maintain their health. They didn't call it 'indigenous,' but they knew what was good for their children."
Part of a network of more than 20 indigenous knowledge resource centers worldwide, the consortium is a collaboration of the Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, College of Education and the University Libraries. The consortium, also known as ICIK, is the only global indigenous knowledge resource center located in the United States.
Other retreat co-sponsors included the Eberly College of Science's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the College of Engineering's Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program, University Libraries, the Palmer Museum of Art, and two additional entities of the College of Education -- the Department of Curriculum and Instruction's science education emphasis area and the Education Technology Center.

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Last Updated May 31, 2011