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Empowering Through Education: A Partnership Guides Communities into the Digital Age

By Rod Jones


When the worlds of traditional culture and cutting-edge technology collide, the results can be transformative. This is evident in a partnership between Oklahoma City University, Apple and four of Oklahoma’s largest Native American tribes — the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Osage nations. Their mission? To propel traditionally under-resourced communities into the digital age, all while preserving their rich cultural heritage.

For many, this partnership goes beyond just coding. As OCU President Kenneth Evans stated, "From coding to more broad technical skills, we’re helping young people prepare for in-demand jobs while still honoring the heritage, language and traditions of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Osage nations."


A Pioneering Partnership Begins

In 2022, OCU began its partnership with Apple’s Community Education Initiative (CEI), which works with organizations and institutions to bring coding, creativity and workforce opportunities to communities that are traditionally underrepresented in technology.

With their support, OCU is reaching students in schools within Native American sovereign boundaries, hosting teaching academies on campus.

The fall 2022 academy introduced coding along with drone piloting. The 2023 academy focused on virtual and augmented reality, and how to expand classroom learning opportunities for students.

Biology Professor Emeritus Helen Gaudin came out of retirement to serve as project manager. Before each academy, Gaudin said that through the partnership, they’re able to hear from tribal leaders on what they’d like to emphasize, then figure out how to best leverage technology to reach those goals. 

Following the academies at OCU, the teachers meet with Apple Professional Learning Specialists remotely once a month for continuing education.

Gaudin says OCU is also leveraging its resources and expertise to help advance the program. For instance, each teacher who participates in an academy is tasked with assembling a project showcasing how they’re applying what they learned to their classroom instruction.

Educational Empowerment in Action

Gaudin noted that in some rural Oklahoma areas, the only place in town with Internet access is the local schoolhouse. “We’re reaching people who wouldn’t otherwise have access,” she said.

With support from this program, educators are now equipped with the tools they need to transform their classrooms. Some of the academy’s participants have become strong advocates, saying the program has supercharged educational outcomes in their respective schools soon after they received the technological learning tools.

Take the case of Lavina Stepp, a library media specialist at Pershing Elementary School in Muskogee. After her training at OCU last year, Stepp received a plethora of tech-related materials, including Apple hardware and software, and even drones donated by OCU Trustee Phil Busey. She says the impact was immediate. Her after-school club became an instant sensation. But the most profound influence was on student participation and engagement. 

"These kids want to come to school now," Stepp said. “Before, we practically had to beg them to come. Now, we have to beg them to go home at the end of the day. They want to stay as long as they can.” 

And they're not just learning to code. They're using these tools to tell their own stories, to rediscover their heritage and to shape their futures. Melissa Million teaches seventh-grade ELA in Muskogee and hosts after-school programs like a “Reading Squad,” opportunities to learn coding with Apple’s Swift Playgrounds and a drone program.  As someone who teaches reading, Million appreciates how the addition of iPads in the classroom made learning more fun and engaging without having to persuade the students to read the assigned material. “When it comes to coding, you have to actually read the material. You have to read the instructions to get the code to work right,” she noted.

One of her students appears to have changed his entire life trajectory for the better. “This was his first experience in a public-school setting,” Million said. “He had been kicked out of schools before he came to us. When the gear arrived mid-year, he recognized the drones right away and said he knew how to fly them. He downloaded the software on his iPad, took it home, learned how to program it, and came back to school to show me how it worked. He flew the drone from our classroom, down the hall to the principal’s office. A lot of other students were watching, and the excitement it generated was amazing.” That student became one of Million’s star pupils.


Bridging Gaps and Crafting Futures

The skills being imparted aren’t just about job opportunities, they’re also about preserving culture and identity. The languages of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Osage tribal nations are supported in the keyboard on Apple devices running iOS, iPadOS and macOS. This allows teachers and students to engage and learn in these languages, helping to preserve them and the cultures and ensuring that their communities can continue forward.

Why is it vital to preserve Native American language and culture?

“If you lose your language, you lose your identity,” President Evans said.

Modern languages professor Dr. Mark Griffin considers himself an “amateur linguist” who is committed to language preservation. He realized the importance of learning a Native American language, seeing it as a way to connect more deeply with Oklahoma’s history. He recently started learning Chickasaw, one of the Native American languages most at risk of extinction with only a handful of fluent speakers left. “There are a lot of theories about how language preserves a culture. It helps us filter our perspectives, to understand the world in a way that you can’t get by reading a textbook,” Griffin said.


A Path Forward

With the initial results showing promise, stakeholders know that this is just the beginning, and plan to continue their work with CEI. However, the true success of the initiative won't be measured just in the number of apps developed or drones flown. It will be seen in the rejuvenation of tribal communities, the preservation of languages and in the stories of every child who discovers that their heritage is their strength.

Bryan Warner, deputy principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, noted his appreciation of the technological tools to reach those goals. "With the convergence of traditional learning and innovative technology, the Cherokee Nation and other sovereign nations are witnessing a resurgence of pride and unity, as our ancestral languages resonate in the voices of a new generation,” Warner said. “The Cherokee language, the foundation of our culture, is not just a link to our past, but will forever remain a source of strength for our people. Collaborating with critical partners like OCU and Apple helps propel us all forward.”

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