Eleven high school students and one recent college grad from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota are looking at homes in their community from a new perspective following their month-long participation in the Sustainable Building Research Experience and Mentoring program at the University of Colorado Boulder.
This STEM outreach program, funded by the National Science Foundation and the university, is headed up by John Zhai, a professor and researcher on building systems engineering at CU-Boulder. The program grew out of his work developing new, more efficient, sustainable building materials for houses.
Over the past three years Zhai and his colleagues have worked with 36 students and seven teachers from tribal communities, giving them hands-on experiences that included, this year, building a straw bale wall, making air quality monitors to identify mold in homes, doing energy audits, getting a taste of life on a university campus and having the opportunity to meet American Indian professionals in STEM fields.
The first week students stayed on campus where they went to seminars, met with faculty and were introduced to college-level research. “We pushed them to do research with an emphasis on doing things correctly, following protocols and being thorough,” Wyatt Champion, CU-Boulder graduate student and lead instructor for the program, said.
Bobbie Knispel, a teacher from Todd County High School who accompanied the students, said, “The program was a great tool for giving them a sense of what college life might be like.”
For the second week, students traveled to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana where they did energy audits under the instruction of Leo Campbell, Winnebago, a certified building analyst with the Building Performance Institute, and checked for mold in eight homes.
Champion says one of the best parts of the program was that “we were able to give back to the community by giving each home a report about how they could save energy by making simple repairs, and if their home was moldy, specifically which room and how they could fix that.”
Students then took their new skills back to their own reservation to look at housing conditions there and to do energy audits. Zhai said conserving energy is critical on reservations. “Residents don’t have to pay the construction costs for their homes, but they do have to pay the utility costs. In the past we have found utilities could be a significant expense, as much as one-quarter or one-third of a family’s income. If we can reduce utility costs, it would be a huge benefit to the tribal community.”
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