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Native American students from Duchesne and Uintah school districts visited the U to explore campus and participate in a guided cow heart dissection.

By Annalisa Purser, communications specialist, University Marketing and Communications

A classroom of nearly 40 elementary and middle school students stood behind their desks doing jumping jacks on Wednesday, July 13.

“What is happening to your heart right now?” asked Donna Eldridge, administrative program coordinator for the School of Medicine Office of Inclusion and Outreach.

Students around the room shouted that their hearts were beating faster.

The heart pumps faster to move oxygen to your organs, Eldridge explained as she continued with a brief anatomy lesson about the heart before the students got a firsthand look at the heart’s inner workings through dissection.

The lesson was part of a daylong field trip to the University of Utah for summer school students from the Duchesne and Uintah school districts.

Cow-heart-kids“Most of these students voluntarily enrolled in summer school because they find it fun,” said Martha Macomber, educational liaison between the U and the Ute Indian Tribe, who arranged the campus visit.

The annual summer field trip to the U is part of an ongoing relationship between the university and the Ute tribe. The campus experience is designed to connect native students with higher education in an effort to promote enrollment in any institution of higher learning once the students are eligible to attend.

American Indian/Alaska Native students have the lowest graduation rates of any racial/ethnic demographic group, according to the Department of Education. During the 2013-14 school year, the graduation rate for American Indian high school students was less than 70 percent, compared to almost 87 percent for the general population.

“Research shows that native students need to be provided with culturally appropriate approaches in the classroom,” said Eldridge, who is Navajo and graduated from the U with a master’s degree in social work. “I believe that having a native educator teach native students helps fulfill this need because they share a common culture and can find mutual understanding.”

Two students from the U’s Native American Research Internship (NARI) program assisted Eldridge in leading the students through the cow heart dissection. The NARI program is open to native students from all tribes, majors and from institutions across the country. It provides students with a clinical or lab research experience during the summer under a U faculty mentor.

Paige Benally, a senior on the U’s Health, Promotion and Education Program has spent the summer working under biomedical informatics professor Jennifer Garvin studying chronic heart failure among veterans.

The combination of a heart dissection paired with native elementary students was a perfect fit for Benally, who grew up on a reservation in Montezuma Creek in southern Utah.

Both of Benally’s parents graduated from college and arranged for her to attend San Juan High School, an hour and a half bus ride from her home, because it had more academic opportunities than the school on the reservation.

“I kind of struck it with having people there to help me and guide me along the way,” she said. “Many people from the reservation may not have the opportunity to attend college, and we need more mentors and guidance on the reservation for the next generation of students.”

Benally hopes to return to Montezuma Creek eventually so she can be a role model and example to students there who may not have the support she experienced.

“That is the community that helped me identify who I am and supported me in getting my education, and it’s definitely where I feel like I should be so I can give back,” she said.

While it’s important to bring students to campus when they’re young so they become familiar with college campuses and feel comfortable there, Eldridge recognizes the importance of connecting with students where they live.

In June, she spent two days in White Mesa, Utah, with students from the Ute tribe in grades three through 12 doing a series of science projects, including dissections, chemical interactions, water balloon experiments, making liquid nitrogen ice cream and more. Elbridge hopes to travel to Fort Duchesne for an overnight trip later this year.

“Native students come from economically challenged areas where health science careers might seem unattainable,” Eldridge said. “We want native students to have the same access to educational resources as any other group. We want them to visualize and imagine health science careers as possibilities.”