Collaborating with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Kimberly Sheldon understands the challenges of being a first-generation college graduate and when she met Caleb Hickman, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, they formed an immediate bond over a shared history of being first-generation students.

“We talked about some of the challenges we faced transitioning to college,” said Sheldon, assistant professor in the UT Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “After discussing how best to help students with this transition, I wanted to develop a long-term, sustainable program for high school students that uses authentic research experiences to foster an interest in science and help them transition to college life.”

Hickman, a supervisory biologist for the Office of Fisheries and Wildlife Management for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, shared her vision and commitment to a sustainable partnership, and last year, the two embarked on a collaboration for an annual summer research program. Specifically, Sheldon and Hickman’s program targets Native American students and students from rural communities, who represent the largest equity gap in STEM fields. “This program is intended to bridge the gap of opportunity and expose high school students to research, technology, and a career in science,” Sheldon said.

Participants used hands-on research experiences and technological training to increase their interest and abilities in STEM fields

Last summer, Sheldon and Hickman launched the first year of the program with help from members of Sheldon’s lab, including UT EEB postdoc Amanda Carter, graduate student Maggie Mamantov, and undergraduate students Will Kirkpatrick and Shelby Collins. Over a two week period, the team taught four high school students from Cherokee High School and Swain County High School about the impacts of environmental change on native fauna through a field-base, hands-on experiment. Participants used hands-on research experiences and technological training to increase their interest and abilities in STEM fields. Students also gained a better understanding of place and preservation of culture through an introduction of the species of their homeland.

“The first year of our program was a great success,” Sheldon said. Students learned about the natural history of dung beetles, carried out a breeding experiment in the field, and presented their findings to biologists with the Office of Fisheries and Wildlife Management. They learned about elk population management, salamander distributions, bat diseases, and constructed weather stations. The goal for the second year of the program is for students to complete a study on the effects of temperature change on salamanders that can be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“Our long-term aim with this program is to increase the representation of Native Americans and those from rural communities in STEM fields and to create a future-ready workforce for the region,” Sheldon said.