Linguistics program gives Native students a leg up on STEM

Two University of Oregon linguistics professors have received funding from the National Science Foundation for a collaborative seminar, Research Experiences for Undergraduates, to be conducted over three summers.

Melissa Baese-Berk and Gabriela Pérez Báez developed the program to offer opportunities to engage in linguistic research for students who have either limited or no access or opportunities to pursue majors in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, known as STEM.

Using the $342,051 grant, Research Experiences for Undergraduates began this summer and will run again for eight weeks each summer for the coming two years, hosting a group of eight students who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. By teaching broadly applicable research skills and using linguistics as a lens, the program opens the door for students to engage in research across STEM fields.

Baese-Berk and Pérez Báez are leveraging students’ interests in their own Indigenous languages to teach them research skills they can use with many other disciplines. The program participants are students from institutions across the country without a linguistics departmentor or that lack expansive undergraduate research opportunities.

“This first iteration of the UO linguistics REU site has made tangible the systemic barriers that reduce access to STEM fields for many, including Native American and Alaska Native students,” Pérez Báez said. “We are committed in doing our part to reduce these barriers, at least in our institution.”

This summer’s program consisted of one week on Zoom and the remaining seven weeks on campus. Each summer session ends with poster presentations that showcase each student’s research project within the area of lingusitics.

Baese-Berk said a key outcome of the first summer session was the sense of community students found with each other during their time at the UO. Students engaged in coursework in the mornings, moved to research in the afternoon, and attend workshops on a variety of professional development and academic topics.

The program was enriched by multiple campus partners, including UO Libraries, the Tutoring and Academic Engagement Center, and the Holden Center.

"Linguistics is really interdisciplinary, so we are able to build out an introduction to what a career in STEM might look like and how students can put themselves on a path toward that,” Baese-Berk said.

The broader goal of the project for Baese-Berk and Pérez Báez is to offer a context for American Indian and Alaska Native students to explore careers in STEM through the lens of linguistics and to showcase how language is a collaboration with a variety of disciplines. The research in the Department of Linguistics has three primary areas of focus: language documentation, language revitalization and experimental approach to language research, all of which interface with the interests of American and Indigenous communities.

“Because our department has expertise in these three areas, we’re able to offer coursework that not only showcases linguistics but also showcases STEM through the specific lens that a lot of our visiting students are interested in,” Baese-Berk said. “We incorporate students’ existing interests in their Indigenous languages to use that as a way to interface with STEM and other disciplines, including anthropology, biology, ecology and even botany.”

Baese-Berk said the project also worked to connect students to Indigenous communities so they’re able to see themselves succeeding. This summer, students went to the coast to harvest sea asparagus with the Coquille Indian Tribe, and Base-Berk points to hands-on opportunities like this as vital to the long-term goals of the program.

“Our hope is that through working with students each summer, there can be a shift in that underrepresentation such that these students become more represented in STEM fields in general,” Baese-Berk said. “Western European perspective is limiting not only to students who might have different experiences but also to our exploration in general. Our goal is to make science better and not only change the experiences for these students but to enact change in STEM overall."

By Victoria Sanchez, College of Arts and Sciences