The Ojibwe language is known as Anishinaabemowin or Ojibwemowin and is the fourth-most spoken Native language.
Danielle Boyer always has loved “cooking up” robots.
So when she started public high school in her hometown of Troy, Mich.,
after years of homeschooling and volunteering as a science instructor
and mentor to younger kids, she immediately joined a FIRST (For
Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics team. It
didn’t go exactly as Boyer hoped. In fact, it was a very difficult
period for her. “I was a girl, and a coder, and the guys made it clear
they really didn’t want me there.”
She tried a robotics team at a different high school. The experience
was the same, but Boyer persevered. She started a volunteer elementary
school STEAM program called Benzene Buddies, and she learned a lot about
the world of robotics competitions. Today, she mentors 35 FIRST
robotics teams, two of them all girls. Yet the landscape really hasn’t
changed much. “People will still tell me that girls are not supposed to
be in engineering,” Boyer says. “But my experiences taught me how to
stand up for myself, fight for other girls, and fight for the changes I
want to see.”
When Boyer was 17, she attended her first world robotics conference.
She was the only one from her high school team to show up — everyone
else went to the prom. Boyer was approached by a representative from
SOLID-WORKS, a 3-D software that she and her team were certified to use.
“I was so excited to tell the representative about our projects and
kept asking her to hold on so I could show her one more thing, and then
one more thing.”
While robot kits often cost over $500 to manufacture,
Boyer figured out how to create an educational robotics kit for $18.95
and has already distributed over 4,500 kits to children for free.
It was the beginning of a meaningful relationship with SOLIDWORKS and
its parent company, Dassault Systèmes. The company featured Boyer in an
Instagram story from the conference. The next month SOLIDWORKS featured
her in a “Women in Engineering” series. That was followed by
invitations to keynote a national conference and speak on podcasts and
panels. “They are the reason I am able to do what I do now,” Boyer says.
She decided to take some time off after graduation before pursuing
mechanical and electrical engineering degrees and ultimately a PhD in
biorobotics. Boyer’s initial goal was to widen her reach by teaching
Indigenous, minority, and underrepresented communities through the books
she writes and curriculum and robots she creates. “I thought, why not
design an organization that would outlast me — one where people who care
about the same things I do, particularly diversity, can participate?”
In 2019, Boyer started her nonprofit, The STEAM Connection. After
getting her domain name and designing a logo, she moved her classes,
books, and robot designs to the site. Her flagship project is EKGAR,
Every Kid Gets a Robot. While robot kits often cost over $500 to
manufacture, Boyer figured out how to create an educational robotics kit
for $18.95 and has already distributed over 4,500 kits to children for
free, primarily to girls and BIPOC students. The kit is a game changer
in rural and Indigenous locations without internet because Boyer created
a way for the robot to work without Wi-Fi. “We need to consider and
address the gaps,” she says. “And we need to pay attention to what the
teachers are saying. If they are asking for funding or books or robots,
we have to listen and get involved.”
In November, Boyer celebrated her 20th birthday by releasing a new
educational robot she invented, aptly named TWENTY. Open source and
available for free on STEAM Connection’s website, TWENTY is 3-D printed,
uses cereal boxes, and even has a glowing eye.
“Dress it up, make it fun, make it creepy-looking!” Boyer says.
Another project just underway is a photo series that will showcase
minorities in STEAM and their projects. “I know it makes a difference
when you can see someone in your culture doing interesting work in
science and robotics,” she says. “I hope it will help a lot of students
feel they belong in STEAM.”
In 2020, Boyer was recognized for her service and advocacy by several
prestigious organizations, including being named a L’Oréal Paris Women
of Worth. That award came with a cash prize that Boyer donated to AISES.
“I asked myself, when do I feel like a Women of Worth?” she explains.
“And the answer 100 percent is when I am within the AISES community,
having that beautiful intertribal community where the focus is on STEM.”
—Ann S. Boor
OGLALA LAKOTA TRIBE
The Badlands and grassy prairies of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota are home to the Oglala Lakota Tribe. The reservation, which comprises 2.1 million acres, is home to about 20,000 people.
For Tyler Rust, the Black Hills region of South
Dakota was a natural geology lab. As a boy he camped in the Badlands
with his grandfather, studying the astonishing formations and fossils.
“From then on I had a persistent yearning to understand myself and my
place in the universe,” he says.
Rust and his mom moved around a lot. When they were living with his
mother’s parents, his grandfather taught him Lakota traditions and
language. Eventually Rust and his mother moved to Black Hawk, S.D.
“Winters were brutal,” recalls Rust. “I spent the greater portion of
the year inside reading and trying to understand a world I felt detached
from.” A counselor in high school encouraged Rust to go to college for
computer science. But a few months before graduation, an acquaintance
threw some fireworks into a car on campus. Rust was accused and offered a
search of his vehicle to prove his innocence. A single live bullet was
found under the rear seat of his car. As Rust had never owned a gun, it
must have belonged to the previous owner of the car. Despite the
perpetrator of the crime taking full responsibility and regardless of a
parking lot always full of pickups with gun racks and loaded shotguns,
Rust was expelled for “possession of explosives.”
Without the necessary GPA or letters of recommendation, going to
college for computer science was no longer an option. “That experience
changed the entire trajectory of my life,” he says. “If I had gone, I
doubt I would have studied earth science. I probably would have acquired
some money but not fulfillment.”
Without a credit-worthy cosigner for student loans, Rust had to
postpone college until he could borrow on his own. At age 25 he applied
to South Dakota School of Mines & Technology (SDSMT) and got in on
his ACT math score. His loans didn’t cover room and board, so he lived
in his mother’s basement 20 miles away, often spending all his money on
gas. “Friends would sneak me a slice of pizza from the dining hall to
keep me from starving,” he says.
The course load at SDSMT is notoriously challenging. “This is not a
party school,” says Rust. “Every night was an all-nighter — for
homework.” He found relief in the Tiospaye Program (“family” in Lakota),
which offers academic support and financial assistance for Native
students. He was involved in other student organizations, including
AISES. “AISES helped me in ways no other institution could ever hope
to,” says Rust. “AISES is healing.” Attending AISES conferences
energized him, and AISES provided scholarships and financial assistance
“A lot of my success came from people believing in me, especially when I didn’t.”
A Gilman Scholarship sent Rust to Turkey, to study the relationship
between geology and human health, which set him on the path toward
environmental geochemistry. The Pine Ridge Reservation, where he spent
so much time with his grandfather, also helped chart his path. Good
grades at SDSMT helped him land a job with an NSF research collaborative
studying how elements in the soil and water affect health on Pine
Ridge. “I knew that the best course I could take in life is to do
something I love, something I am good at, and something that could
benefit the world,” he says.
Rust is currently a fifth-year PhD candidate at the State University
of New York (SUNY) Binghamton, where he found the cultural expectations
quite different. There’s no AISES chapter or Native community. “Nobody
had any interest in what my world is about,” he says.
Besides the cultural disconnect, the biggest change from
undergraduate studies for Rust has been the shift from absorbing to
creating knowledge. “This is not homework that you turn in to have your
answers checked,” he says. “You are creating the answers.” With a
project well beyond his knowledge base, Rust endured and taught himself
what he needed to know.
His tenacity, traditional knowledge, and professors have helped him
succeed. “I have been trained in excellent skills in scientific research
and writing,” he says. “My professors did more for me than I ever could
repay. My elders in AISES filled in all the cracks I could not cover,
or even see. A lot of my success came from people believing in me,
especially when I didn’t.”
For Rust, geology is a stepping stone. “The ultimate goal is to
become an elder,” he says. “A teacher of science and spirit. A modernday
Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk).” His shorter-term goal is to become a
professor at a tribal college or university, so that he can teach others
to translate the language of nature and solve issues of the Earth
system. “We can create our own reality,” he says. “We as Native peoples
can create the reality we desire and deserve.”