Kanyon Martinez, a member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, was about to graduate from Bishop Union High School in Bishop, California, last year when he heard about an internship possibility with Grid Alternatives — a nonprofit organization that brings solar installations to low-income communities, including tribes.
Martinez was glad for the chance to gain some work experience, but now that opportunity has grown into much more. First, he participated in Solar Futures, Grid Alternatives’ five-hour educational program, which teaches K-12 and community college students about the solar industry and gives them some basic skills related to installation.
Then, he was chosen for a three-month internship, which eventually led to a one-year fellowship funded by a U.S. Department of Energy grant to the tribe and Grid Alternatives.
“I didn’t know much about Grid or solar whatsoever,” says Martinez, who now works part-time for Grid Alternatives’ office in Riverside. And in August, he had the chance to complete an installation on the Bishop Paiute reservation. “It’s awesome to be able to give solar back to where I grew up.”
Educational outcomes among American Indian and Alaska native students trail those of their peers in other demographic groups on a number of indicators. Over the past 15 to 20 years, native students’ scores in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have remained stagnant or dropped as those indicators improved among black and Hispanic students.
About 72.4% of native students graduate from high school, compared to 77.8% of black students and 80% of Hispanic students, according to the Building a Grad Nation report. And a recent study in California shows suspension and expulsion rates among Native American students are higher than the state average.
Supporting STEM education through solar
By partnering with tribal communities and schools serving native students to deliver the Solar Futures program, Grid Alternatives is supporting learning in science, technology, engineering and math. They are also introducing students who face significant barriers to opportunities in a growing industry.
Many native students see a direct connection between solar and living conditions on the reservation, says Tim Willink, the director of tribal programs for Grid Alternatives. Forty-five students from native schools have participated in the Grid Alternatives program. (That number doesn't include native students who have participated but who attend non-native serving schools.)
Some “have relatives who don’t have access to electricity,” he says, adding that they begin to pay closer attention to math lessons when they see how it applies to preparing for an installation. “They get to turn the wrench and pull the tapes measures and work with us on the panels.”
The program also covers career pathways in the industry — not just for installers, but also in design and sales, for example. Willink also ties the skills learned in the program to future college plans. “Maybe they’re going into engineering, but a lot of folks I’ve met don’t know what kind of engineer they want to be.”
Since 2017, Grid Alternatives has worked with five tribes to bring its Solar Futures program to schools serving native students.
One of the tribal program’s strongest partnerships is with Navajo Preparatory Academy, a private school in Farmington, New Mexico, sanctioned by the Navajo Nation.
“The instructor is really into it, sees the value and gets his students really fired up,” Willink says. “This is their community. They have a chance to give back.”
Low rates of college enrollment among Native American students is the primary reason why Sherman Indian High School — a federal Bureau of Indian Education off-reservation boarding school in Riverside, California — is finalizing plans to offer the Solar Futures program.
The addition of the program is part of the growth of career and technical education programs at the school, supported with a grant from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.
“Some of the big potential work on a reservation is construction, and solar, which is getting popular everywhere,” says Brian Hayden, a career pathways instructor at the school.
There is also a growing gap in the construction workforce between those retiring and “new guys coming in who can’t read a tape measure,” he says, adding that the grant from San Manuel emphasizes internships so students can “see what it’s like to work in the real world.”