POSOH's Story

The “truth” of POSOH’s story is ever-evolving, and any one written account will unfortunately leave out important acknowledgements and contributions

The “truth” of POSOH’s story is ever-evolving, and any written account will unfortunately leave out important acknowledgements and contributions – that hazard is inevitable.

If you were to gather a group of us together to collectively recall our story of POSOH, then each tale would trigger memories of another; one listener’s body language would remind us to be humble and thankful, and collectively our story would unfold in all its dimensions. Such an experience cannot be captured; it must unfold anew each time it is told. We can, however, offer below a video about POSOH’s work and a story written by Hedi Baxter Lauffer that give glimpses into aspects of POSOH Project’s early influences.


POSOH Project: Community Visions of Culturally Based Science Education (15:49)


“Stand on the shoulders of giants” is now a Google Scholar tagline; however, for me it has particular significance in relation to three foundational notions that underpin the POSOH Project:

  1. Collaboration: At the heart of collaboration is genuine recognition that valuable work emerges when we stand together—on each other’s shoulders and on the shoulders of giants past, present, and future—taking the time to build relationships and share our understandings.
  2. Recognition: Humbly acknowledging that all we know builds on a vast body of accumulated knowledge, including that we are building on ALL human knowledge, not just that which was written down or published by a special class of giants who were members of the most privileged cultures.
  3. Nonlinear thinking: “Shoulders of giants” as a metaphor opens the door for us to recognize the wisdom that comes to us from diverse beings through many different ways of knowing and communicating; and “accumulation of knowledge” is not merely a function of linear time passing.

These “themes” emerged and converged, forming a glowing ember that circumstance and fate fanned until the POSOH idea kindled into a steady fire. You might expect this written story to be told entirely chronologically, documenting a linear progression of events that resulted in the funded proposal, but what is the value in that? Some of the most important contributors appeared mid-project, their shoulders sliding into POSOH’s foundation like carefully hewn puzzle pieces. Other influences form an overarching and continuous canopy of hope for our Project, shading and sheltering us simple human beings with our various egos. In any given moment, POSOH at its best offers us glimpses into the wisdom of a healthy, thriving ecosystem in which we can all play a sustaining role.

The interplay among people who took the lead in crossing institutional and cultural boundaries roots the invisible strength that supports POSOH’s work. We owe all of POSOH’s practical progress to those individuals who took the risk of investing themselves in an unproven dream. What we have built came to fruition only because of those educators, community members, and students who live in or come from POSOH’s “place” and were willing to forego the safe distance afforded by skepticism, instead presuming positive intentions, even inviting others to join in our efforts.

The awareness that connects me, personally, to POSOH’s place began with a fieldtrip to the Menominee Forest during a class at UW titled Vegetation of Wisconsin in the early 1990s. That first impression stayed with me long after the class ended. In fact, a brief story about that experience is included in POSOH’s 7th Grade Unit (included because our Design Team wanted our Unit to help middle-school learners recognize how outsiders can see value in their Forest). Then—years later—a related “aha” moment struck me during a presentation that was made by a Stockbridge-Munsee team during the annual reporting conference for Wisconsin professional development grants. This group described how the relationships and collaborations that grew during their summer institutes were even more valuable than the elementary curriculum kit they were disseminating. I recognized in their story an observation that I shared: engaging in collaborative, professional learning experiences can be powerful for changing teachers’ beliefs and practices. Getting teachers inside the curriculum and thinking deeply about its intent with the developers was key.

In a previous project that I co-facilitated, a collaboration formed among educators and scientists in the Los Angeles area, and from it grew relationships and new understandings of science. We could see the professional collaborative experiences from that work had been just as valuable as the inquiry units that we produced. Learning about the Stockbridge-Munsee project set me to wonder: what if we merged those two projects’ goals—broadening the educator-scientist type collaborations to include Native people. Could we grow a new understanding of science and science teaching and learning that was culturally inclusive? Could we possibly change the face of science and the potential for a sustainable future by helping to diversify the scientific community?

Were it not for UW biochemistry professor Rick Amasino’s humility and commitment to both science and science education, these ideas may never have found a home. His support for a complex, preliminary sketch that I made on a whiteboard at Science House (on the UW-Madison campus) opened the opportunity to explore creating the POSOH Project in response to a call for proposals that was issued in 2010 by the US Department of Agriculture. The call was entirely new, reflecting a reorganization that took place in the USDA and their interest in funding one or two large-scale education projects that addressed bioenergy and sustainability.

The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) on the UW campus with its strong education component was (and is) directed by Rick Amasino along with John Greenler. The Center’s education division seemed a natural fit with the connections I could imagine to the Menominee people and their sustainable forest management practices.

That whiteboard sketch of the POSOH proposal was only a spark: an initial roadmap for what POSOH is today. Not until the funding was granted did the leadership team of 2011 sit together in a circle at the College of Menominee Nation Commons, struggling with specific directions and mapping out logistics. That was when the journey really started taking shape. At that time, every leadership team member decided how much support she could shoulder for POSOH’s foundational work, and key questions were asked about how the group would address some of what we perceived as key challenges associated with integrating culture and science.

To capture the nuggets from those discussions in writing is impossible; suffice to say that we were fortunate in that initial meeting to have strong and forward thinkers involved in POSOH’s leadership who pushed the group to begin hard conversations. We began confronting issues related to how Native spirituality and culturally sensitive knowledge could be honored in science curricula such that the classroom discourse would both stay true to the science disciplinary knowledge and cultural knowledge. We worried about supporting non-Native teachers such that their use of POSOH’s materials would respect Menominee culture and recognize it as a valuable and ever-evolving part of a modern society. We discussed the difference between interviewing elders—thereby elevating one version of the culture—versus supporting students to learn how to ask and listen respectfully to elders. Jerilyn Grignon (of CMN) shared her insights into how traditional science knowledge needs to be acknowledged as part of what we now refer to as scientific knowledge. She guided us away from a Venn-diagram-type description of the relationship between Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Western Science. Manali Sheth shouldered some of the more challenging leadership conversations as her fierce commitment to social equity emerged, and she encouraged others to share their concerns and insights. Beau Mitchell and Melissa Cook (both at the Sustainable Development Institute of CMN at that time) made key contributions to POSOH’s plan, including the idea that became known as the Sustainability Leadership Cohort when Kate Flick joined our team and breathed life into that ember.

The original POSOH proposal to the USDA illustrated a vision for the project by drawing on a story that Beau Mitchell told during one of several meetings at CMN among key collaborators. Those early meetings typically involved John Greenler or Rick Amasino traveling with me to CMN where Melissa Cook, Mike Dockry, Beau Mitchell, and William Van Lopik would gather around a table to discuss how the project could be developed and implemented. This collaboration emerged out of an introductory meeting that was initiated by Nicky Bowman—she had been the evaluator for the Stockbridge-Munsee project that sparked the POSOH idea. During my first call to Nicky, she suggested the idea of contacting the Sustainable Development Institute at CMN for this potential project, and within a week or so, Nicky and I had arranged for a meeting with Donna Powless and Melissa Cook. That meeting and our follow-up conversations set POSOH’s collaboration in motion. One story that emerged from an early meeting became the introduction to the submitted proposal to give reviewers a feel for the heart and vision of our project, which was genuinely collaboratively created. That story is included at the conclusion of this reflection on POSOH because it was one of the gems that emerged from our collaboration and helped us become funded (Please note this story was generously approved for inclusion in the proposal by Beau Mitchell.)

Although I was the one burning a candle at both ends to write the narrative for POSOH’s proposal in time for submission, the ideas it contained were inspired and reviewed by the collaborative team. The proposal was strengthened tremendously by wise and timely feedback given by Rick Amasino and Melissa Cook; the detailed budget that was painstakingly assembled by John Greenler; and the targeted snippets of statements submitted by partners Andy Anderson (MSU) and Bob Kellogg (then at CESA 8). With the addition just hours before submission of Nicky’s preliminary evaluation table and the skillful assembly of all necessary components by the patient and incredibly helpful staff at UW, POSOH’s proposal was completed and uploaded to USDA without a moment to spare.

Each paper printout of the proposal that POSOH’s partners reviewed and returned with feedback was a gift from the trunks of trees; each thoughtful reflection and suggestion connected the new canopy that we would share when the project began; and every moment spent resolving challenges as they arose deepened the roots that would stabilize our collaboration. At the time of this writing, we see a forest where there were once only separate trees, and we know something of the complex ecology in that forest. We have no illusion that the web of relationships that make up our partnership can be sustained without effort, and we have hope that the nurturing will continue as naturally as the branches spread when a tree matures.

Right now, the POSOH Project is four years young. Our progress is due entirely to the courage of those “giants” who have chosen to take action and shoulder something unfamiliar and emerging. From science teachers and culture teachers, to scientists and foresters, undergraduates and graduate students, faculty and staff, middle and high school students to parents and community members—the relationships that have grown among collaborators sustain the POSOH Project. Without the foundation formed by those relationships POSOH would be an empty shell. However, together we stand committed, sharing high hopes for sustainable outcomes that can transform Native students’ experiences and perceptions of science:

Imagine a middle-school boy daydreaming from his school desk about trips with his family to the mountains, where he enters a world of learning about nature that piques his curiosity and hones his skills. These experiences in the mountains focus the boy's attention. He tries hard to learn everything he can about the natural world from his experiences and his family's stories, told in their native language. He recalls these trips vividly; his family members steep him in rich Native American understandings of food, agriculture, and connectedness. Then he reluctantly turns his attention back to his science class. His time in class passes slowly, while he contemplates anything but the words in his science book. Although the chapter is titled Ecology and the pages in front of him describe forest succession—which he learns of with his uncle—he sees no connection between school and his own knowledge or interests. Each science lesson merely confirms what he has felt for years: he is not academically inclined and he should never consider any kind of science-related career. Science class is stressful, a place where he is told to study books and is judged by his test scores, neither of which stimulate this bright boy to engage his tremendous problem-solving and analytical skills or draw upon the wealth of knowledge he learns with his family.

Now imagine an eighth grade science class that is abuzz with students enthusiastically and respectfully critiquing the explanations that their peers developed with evidence collected during a research project. Chiming in with evidence about how to raise healthy forests by growing a mix of species (a strategy he learned that the Menominee practice), a young girl stands tall and passionately articulates a well-reasoned argument from evidence she selected in her forestry research materials. She and her classmates look forward to science class, where they are studying ecosystems in a new unit that their teacher learned during a summer institute she attended locally. Early in the unit, students designed experiments to investigate the relationship between variation in a plant population and environmental pressures; then they began researching forest management strategies from a variety of scientific, social and cultural perspectives. In every lesson, their teacher discusses connections among what they are learning, the place where they live and issues of sustainability and bioenergy that are familiar from the news. These students can imagine themselves as researchers, biomass farmers, foresters and stewards of agricultural lands in ways they never dreamed of before experiencing this science class.