Eleven-year-old Patricia Stone aspires to be an astronaut one day. On Tuesday, she took a step toward that dream when she launched a balloon rocket at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.
Stone was among 60 other American Indian students gathered to listen to Indian leaders and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) officials encourage them to pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
The event was part of a national effort supported by the energy department and President Obama's My Brother's Keeper, an initiative to encourage young people to succeed. The local effort was particularly focused on American Indian children, who historically have not joined science and technology fields in large numbers.
"I want them to see that native people can do science," said Jody Tall Bear, DOE strategic initiatives and policy adviser. "They do it, and they do it very well."
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Dot Harris, DOE director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, encouraged students to unlock their curiosity and potential.
The event also focused more broadly on encouraging American Indian students to graduate and go on to college.
Trent Tucker, Minneapolis Public Schools' district director of athletics and a former Knicks professional basketball player, shared his story of finishing his college degree after leaving his pro basketball career.
"What you start today, make sure you finish it," he said. "Don't be afraid to fail and don't be afraid to be successful."
The officials asked the students how they felt STEM should be taught in the classroom. In groups, students scribbled down their recommendations, including more experiments in the classroom and less testing.
Zoe Brown, 21, an intern at the American Indian Freedom School, said it was significant that the event organizers asked for student input about STEM.
"They were very strong speakers," she said. "I thought it was an excellent event."
Some speakers, including David Greendeer, Ho-Chunk Nation representative, and Chris Deschene, director of the DOE Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, opened their talks in their native tongues.
Greendeer said students should not only learn about STEM but also learn their native language.
Greendeer also spoke to students about how they can work best together using the knowledge they have about themselves. He said it was important for him to reach out to future American Indian leaders.
"All of us have a specific purpose," Greendeer said. "We need to understand what our gifts are as a team. We can do a lot for our people."
Shania Thompson, 18, said she appreciated how the American Indian speakers, like Greendeer, traveled to meet with students.
Suzanne Singer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory energy analyst, who is Navajo, represents natives working in STEM fields. She said students need to see people who look like them succeeding in their field and support them.
After hearing the speakers, students broke off to explore the museum and participate in Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center activities. The students launched bottle rockets, designed rockets out of paper and learned how to create circuits.
Donna Stein, American Indian Magnet School parent resource liaison, said having native people in STEM benefits the whole community.
"Our people have been through an awful lot," she said. "We have a generation trying to recuperate. We need to find a way to recuperate with STEM."
Students also watched the film about the space shuttle program in the museum's Omnitheater. Students then took part in the Space: An Out of Gravity Experience exhibit. The hands-on exhibit allowed them to learn about advances in human space exploration.
Stein, a member of the Ojibwe tribe from Lac Courte Oreilles, said more native children need to be encouraged to pursue STEM.
"The doors need to be open to them and not shut because they are Native American," she said. "These are my grandchildren; I want them to walk with pride."