For as long as anyone can remember, the tiny American Indian community of Westwater, in the southeastern corner of Utah, hasn't had running water.
And, for some time, educators have struggled to boost academic achievement among American Indian students.
Those two seemingly disparate problems, oddly enough, might be partly solved through the same means.
This week, 13 American Indian teens gathered at the Utah State University (USU) Eastern Blanding Campus for a weeklong science, technology, engineering and math camp. Their project? Help figure out a way to transfer water from a spring at the bottom of Westwater Canyon to the Navajo community of Westwater.
"We wanted to do more than just teach a week of math," said Jim Barta, an associate professor of education at the college and coordinator of the project, which is run by the federally-funded Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institution program (NASNTI) at USU. "We thought this would pose a realistic problem for the students ... of what can we do to help our neighbors using science, math, engineering and technology."
Given the decades of political and social issues underlying the community's lack of running water, it's unlikely the students' solutions will become reality. But camp leaders hope the real-world problem inspires students to become the types of professionals who could tackle such dilemmas in the future.
The teens, who hail from Utah and Arizona, have spent the week visiting the Westwater community, working in the field and doing research. On Tuesday, for example, the students measured the spring's flow and then hiked up the sloped, rocky trail to Westwater. It's the same trail, lined by cedar trees and juniper bushes, that community members sometimes traverse to retrieve water. Most of the time, they use water that's trucked into the community or held in cisterns.
It's a problem that's roused the teens, most of whom are also Navajo.
"I think we take water for granted," said Chelsea Nelson, who will be a senior at Monument Valley High School in the fall. "It just kind of makes you feel thankful for what you have, and you just would want them to know how that feels instead of having to work for water."
Metahna Parker, who will be a junior at San Juan High School in the fall, said she's lived in nearby Blanding for pretty much her whole life and didn't know until this week that the community didn't have running water.
"They can't do everyday things like water their lawn," said Parker. "They have to watch what they're doing with their water."
And if any of the students know what running water would mean to the community, it's Ramon Toadlena, 18. Toadlena, of Arizona, said he lived without running water in his home until about a year ago. He said when he wasn't home, his mom often had to haul water in jugs and buckets.
"It would be really hard for her," Toadlena said. "Now, I'm really glad the water is on at my house."
In the fall, Toadlena will be a freshman at the college, where he hopes to major in engineering.
Camp leaders hope more students adopt such plans for the future. Curtis Frazier, NASNTI grant director and an adjunct instructor at the college, said the camp is just one way the program, which is in its second year at the college, is trying to help American Indian students succeed in college. In Utah and nationwide, American Indian students, as a group, tend to score lower than some other groups on standardized tests.
Frazier said part of the issue is that Navajo culture looks at math differently than Western culture, which can lead to some difficulty for Navajo students. In Navajo culture, math is all done in the head, and it's more about observation and everyday life than computation and numerics, he said. For example, Navajo weavers use a lot of math in making a rug, but they don't think about it in traditional mathematical terms, said Frazier, who is also Navajo.
Frazier said the camp is a way to help bridge that divide for American Indian students. It's also a way to give them a small preview of college life, as they spend the week living in the dorms and working in college classrooms.
"We don't really have the word mathematics in our language," said Nelson, one of the students. "We're learning new ways to think of math and different perspectives."
Clayton Long, who acts as a volunteer liaison for Westwater, said the Westwater conundrum is a great way to teach math and science.
And who knows maybe it will turn out to be more than just an academic exercise.
"If they do come and share and give us a detailed description, I can share that with the Westwater people and see what they think," Long said of the teens' solutions. "If it is a possible answer, it might be that we continue working together."
To learn more about the Westwater community and why it doesn't have running water, read a previous Tribune story at http://tinyurl.com/cdcekhp.