None of the 34 Native American tribal colleges scattered
across 12 states offers a Bachelor of Science degree in
engineering. Lee Snapp of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston is working hard to change that.

Snapp is beginning the second year of a two-year assignment to
the Salish Kootenai College at Pablo, Mont., on the Flathead
Indian Reservation. He is working with tribal colleges,
government agencies, engineering societies and others toward
establishing a common effort and goals to foster technical
education, particularly engineering.

“NASA is committed to development of the next generation of
space explorers, scientists and engineers by encouraging young
people to study technical subjects,” said Jefferson D. Howell
Jr., Johnson Space Center Director. “NASA is also aggressively
pursuing a more diversified workforce.”

Early in his two-year assignment, Snapp and colleagues
surveyed the 34 tribal colleges, many of them two-year
institutions. Initially, six expressed interest in development
of engineering or pre-engineering curriculums. Today 11
colleges, including two four-year institutions, are directly
involved in the effort.

Goals of the project include establishing at least one degree-
granting engineering program at one or more of the colleges,
perhaps at Salish Kootenai College, where Snapp serves as dean
of engineering. Another goal is to establish common pre-
engineering standards to enable students to transfer
seamlessly among tribal institutions that will develop
engineering programs, and to make it easier for students to
transfer to non-tribal universities for graduate studies.

As the effort progresses, information and lessons learned are
shared among the partners. “The answers are exciting, complex
and will require study,” said Snapp, who holds a bachelor’s
degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Air Force
Academy and a master’s in astronautics from the Air Force
Institute of Technology. He retired from the Air Force to join
NASA in 1989.

“Tribal colleges are founded in native cultures. They have
different priorities and ways of doing business that must be
honored,” Snapp said. “Native culture is not always consistent
with the way we do business at NASA, but we are working very
well together. Reaching out to Native Americans by going to
them is critical.”

While there are challenges, there are advantages that can be
used to meet them. One, Snapp said, is the support he has
received from Native Americans at JSC. He cited contributions
by astronaut John Herrington and Jerry C. Elliott, an engineer
in the Shuttle Program Office.

Another is the welcome he has received from the Native
American community. “They have met me more than halfway,”
Snapp explained. That community’s elders, people with wisdom,
understanding and knowledge, have been especially supportive
of these efforts, as have the tribal college presidents, he

While many challenges remain, Snapp said he is encouraged by
what already has been accomplished. “This is an exciting,
ambitious program. JSC, Salish Kootenai College and its
partners have taken leadership roles and will make substantial
contributions in educating the next generation of engineers,”
he said.

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