More hands-on learning for the Lakota (Sioux) students

St. Joseph’s eighth grade girls had another opportunity for hands-on learning last week when they attended a GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math and Science) conference at

Claire is a St. Joseph's houseparent

South Dakota State University (SDSU) in Brookings, South Dakota.


As one professor pointed out, eighth grade is a critical time for girls in math—some of them are taking algebra and for the first time are struggling to “get it.” Later, they may start avoiding taking math and science classes based on the faulty belief that it is too hard, or they just can’t do it. Besides, girls don’t do math, right? HA!


GEMS was an opportunity for them to learn that not only are math and science accessible for girls, they can be a lot of fun! They had 15+ volunteer role models to show them how great it is to be a girl-geek in engineering. Both students and professors were on hand to show them around and guide them through four activities.


St. Joseph’s eighth grade girls programmed a robot to navigate an obstacle course as part of the GEMS workshop.
The girls were careful to start their robot in the same place each time to navigate the course.

Engineering is all about solving problems, so the girls were given several cool tasks to try out for themselves.


Problem #1: Control a Robot. Instead of using a remote control, the girls wrote the actual program to guide the robot through a maze drawn on a floor mat. Wow! Just like the Mars Rover! They wrote lines of code and then tested them out on the robot, tweaking distances and degrees of turns. All the while, their college mentors modeled how to solve problems. “You might want to shorten the turn there. Make sure you always set the robot down in the same spot.” The girls were fascinated, frustrated and elated.


Problem #2: Solve a Crime. Oh no! Somebody broke into the lab, broke a planter, stole some copper wiring, and spilled a suspicious white powder on the floor. Plus, they left

While learning about how buildings are constructed, the girls wore regulation Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE.
Personal Protection Equipment – it’s what all the cool girls are wearing!

behind their half-eaten chocolate bar. That’s just WRONG.


The girls got to use techniques like fingerprinting, dental casting, foot printing and chemical analysis to figure out whodunit.  I can’t wait until someone’s snacks go missing in Pinger Home, because I am sure the St. Joseph’s CSI team will be on the case. Stand back!


Problem #3: Build a New Laboratory. Well, the girls didn’t actually have to help construct a building. But they had a very enthusiastic tour guide explain to them all the different teams who have to work together to complete a complex structure (not unlike the crew who completed the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center renovation last fall). Plus they got to wear PPE – Personal Protection Equipment – goggles, hard hats and reflector vests. It’s what ALL the fashionable girl geeks and engineers are wearing!


Problem #4: Build a Bridge. This was their absolute favorite activity. It involved working in a team with a tour guide. They had to build a working 6-foot bridge with tinker toys, cardboard, string and two bricks. As one girl said:

At first, I saw the space between the two desks and I thought we could never do it. And then we just… started building. I really had to exercise my brain.

The importance of mentors became really clear.

I liked building the bridge because our guide stayed with us the whole time instead of rotating to other stations. She could tell we were really into it.

The Lakota girls worked in teams to build a bridge spanning 6 feet using only string, cardboard, two bricks and tinker toys.
Their favorite task was building a 6-foot bridge, working only with cardboard, two bricks, string and tinker toys.


The girls really enjoyed their trip to SDSU, even though it meant getting up at 5am (on a Saturday!) to make the 3-hour trek from St. Joseph’s Indian School to Brookings. I really hope their experience will help them the next time they get stuck in math class.

This may be hard, but I can do hard things. I can solve this problem.

Once again, I thank our generous donors and SDSU for giving our Native American girls such an awesome learning opportunity. Girls Rock!

Author: St. Joseph's Indian School

At St. Joseph's Indian School, our privately-funded programs for Lakota (Sioux) children in need have evolved over 90 years of family partnership, experience and education. Because of generous friends who share tax-deductible donations, Native American youth receive a safe, stable home life; individual counseling and guidance; carefully planned curriculum based on Lakota culture and individual student needs and tools to help build confidence, boost self-esteem and improve cultural awareness. All of this helps children to live a bright, productive, possibility-filled future.

7 thoughts on “More hands-on learning for the Lakota (Sioux) students”

  1. LOVE… LOVE… LOVE to read about programs like GEMS. As a former science teacher this is the way to go. You go girls!!! Congratulations!!!

    1. It is so encouraging to see the girls enjoy science and math. The sky really is the limit. Thanks!

  2. I am always pushing for opportunities for girls to experience GEMS and STEM. Being a female student of the 60s who was told that being a secretary was my best option, I want to see more for the future of girls in the 21st century! GO LAKOTA GIRLS!!

    1. Exactly! It is good for our Lakota girls to know how many amazing options are out there for them.

  3. Similar to chaotic systems, we all think the same but differently. Just like every one of those billions of snowflakes that fall outside your window are similar but each different.

    What each of us have to find is the way our brains work and to feel joy when that happens.

    Some of us will ‘get it’ through our fingers. Some of us will ‘get there’ by looking at a problem in a different way.

    The key is for each of us to have enough grit to not give up and keep trying until we have done something the way our brains need to understand it.

    Our cosmos follows rules and through our senses we can ‘tease’ our brains into making the connections and it will give us a sense of well being when we lead it along the path that is correct for it.

    Be self aware and find the way that is right for you. Have grit!

    1. Well said! The trick is to work at a problem long enough to have things connect/ click in to place, instead of immediately assuming it’s “too hard.”

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