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First Native-American astronaut pushes STEM studies for Native-American students

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John B. Herrington, a retired U.S. Navy aviator and former NASA astronaut, was the first Native-American to walk in outer space. Herrington, a citizen of the Chickasaw nation, now works with the American Indian Institute for Innovation to help Native-American students excel in the scientific fields.

John Bennett Herrington, who took Native-American culture to outer space, wants to take science to Native-American students.

Herrington, the first Native-American to walk in outer space, came to Rapid City this week to meet with the American Indian Institute for Innovation to discuss the importance of the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — for Native American high school and college students.

"They're the most underrepresented group in STEM fields," Herrington said. "We work with them to improve their chances for success."

He wasn't always a high achiever, getting booted from his first try at college, but then rebounding to earn three degrees.

But although he can attach "Dr." to his name, Herrington is better known by another title: astronaut. He was a member of the 16th space shuttle flight to the International Space Station in 2002. There, he honored his Native-American heritage during his space walk by carrying six eagle feathers, a braid of sweet grass, two arrowheads and the Chickasaw nation's flag. Herrington is a citizen of Chickasaw nation.

"It was a chance to honor my heritage and my family," Herrington said in an interview Tuesday in Rapid City, "and a chance to thank them for the faith they had in me."

Since then, Herrington has earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of Idaho, which he felt was necessary to help interest students and donors in education.

"Being a retired astronaut gets you in the door," Herrington said. "But I thought to myself, 'What do I know about education?' So I went back."

In addition, Herrington has a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics and a master's in aeronautical engineering. He is the chairman of the board of the American Indian Institute for Innovation.

The institute partners with South Dakota Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, which runs a summer program at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. The program exposes young Native-American students to a college environment early.

"The key is that 100 percent of the program's alumni graduate high school," Herrington said. "Over 80 percent go to college."

The program engages students in hands-on experience in learning, which Herrington stresses as the key to keeping students engaged. He said that while working on his doctoral dissertation, he asked a handful of students to tell him what they had learned in a NASA summer program 3 years earlier.

"They could list everything ... because they had a chance to work with their friends in experiments and build rockets," Herrington said. "They couldn't tell me what they learned in history a month ago, but they remembered everything from this program from 3 years ago."

Herrington said he learned the same way.

"I got kicked out of college because I had no aptitude for learning at the time," Herrington said. "I learned trigonometry when I needed to learn it as a rock climber on a survey crew. Experiential learning made a difference."

The institute's plans started as a grandiose idea to build a residential 4-year school, but it evolved into a focus on working at a high school level with the state and with the reservations.

"We're working at a grassroots level to get them excited about learning," Herrington said. 

Herrington said that it made a difference if students could just be taught that they're far from alone in the history of Native-American innovators, from the civilizations that built pyramids out of dirt to early celestial studies.

"None of them have been taught any of that in school, so they think they're not capable," Herrington said. "It you teach them to take pride in what their ancestors did, they'll follow."

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