The North Carolina tribe combines STEM and tradition


In 2019, a group of impatient members of the tribe appealed to the leaders of Waccamaw Siouan, proposing to launch a STEM education initiative in the tribal community called STEM Studio.

The latest initiative, launched earlier this month, has allowed these tribal leaders to link the growing need for STEM education with traditional tribal practices for students.

With vacancies at STEM expected growth of 8% by 2029 STEM Studio was designed to promote interest in STEM among tribal youth.

The most recent STEM Studio the initiative is a “Build a Wigwam” contest that is supported Corning Foundation. Wigwams are traditional domed houses made of natural materials. These were conventional semi-permanent dwellings used by indigenous peoples throughout the United States.

For this competition, students were asked to create stable, durable copies of wigwams no more than one foot in diameter. To test this, wigwams were evaluated on a number of criteria, including hurricane and earthquake tests, whether it used 100% durable material and whether the wigwam design was realistic.

Students used materials such as vines, tree branches and bark. Several wigwams have been interactive, including one that repeats the “shutter” at the top and a string that you pull down.

A display of the “village” was presented on the wigwam display, complete with miniature figurines depicting the Wakkam-Siuan families. Cheyenne McNeill / EducationNC

Ashley Lombay, director of STEM Studio, says the reaction to the project has been staggering. For Lomboy, STEM Studio is about creating affordable STEM education opportunities for tribal youth, including those who do not live in or near the tribe.

For this “Build a Wigwam” competition, distant students were asked to take pictures of themselves as they performed the tests. Because of this commitment to accessibility, tribal members from across the country submitted copies of the wigwam to the competition, including a family from Virginia.

“Because we had such a big, big contribution from the community, I said you know, we really have to try to demonstrate and really celebrate the children and what they’ve achieved,” Lamboy said.

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From there she reached out to the Columbus County Arts Council plan an exhibition for wigwams. STEM Studio was also able to receive a grant from North Carolina Arts Councildepartment of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

For judging, the projects were divided into three categories: primary, secondary and secondary school. Winners received prizes ranging from gift cards and Discovery science kits to Apple iPads and scholarships sponsored by the Waccamaw Siouan tribe.

At Build a Wigwam, a guest tastes Yaupon Tea, provided by Yaupon Tea, Co. Cheyenne McNeill / EducationNC

The exhibition featured wigwams and music by Kaya the tortoise, a traditional singer and songwriter from Robson County. For Lombay, the event was to demonstrate modern and traditional aspects of indigenous culture, so STEM Studio also collaborated with Yaupon Tea Co. from Wilmington, NC to provide samples of Yaupon tea.

Samples of the Yaupon plant were exhibited at the Whiteville, North Carolina, Cheyenne McNeill / EducationNC

The Yaupon shrub is native to the southeastern United States and has previously been used by indigenous peoples for ritual and medicinal purposes. Today it is used due to its natural caffeine and antioxidant properties.

Lombay said it was an opportunity to allow members of the tribe to connect with part of their history.

“These wigwams were in the 1600s and 1700s and what we would live in,” Lamboy said. “I thought it would be really cool if we could serve Yaupon tea because it was part of the green corn ceremony in the region.”

Waccamaw Siouan STEM has organized more than 12 programs since its inception. From the beginning, the leaders intended to open members of the tribe – regardless of age – STEM education. Projects included competitions, enrichment days and more.

With 44 participants, this was the largest show of participants since the start of the program in 2019.

STEM Studio organizes events through its Facebook page to increase coverage. His next event is a camp for the Yacunne (fish) community in April, where members of the tribe are encouraged to master the best fishing techniques, including proper techniques from the pond to the plate. Then follows Waccamaw Siouan STEM Studio MarineQuest Day out University of North Carolina at Wilmington in May.

The North Carolina tribe combines STEM and tradition

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