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Dr. Spencer Ingley, assistant professor, secures FAC funding for research project aimed at keeping Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students in STEM

Spencer Ingley standing at a pulpit in the Little Theater. He is wearing a pink polo shirt.
Spencer Ingley won the 2021 professorship award for seeking to include Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students in STEM research.

The winner of 2021’s professorship award is Dr. Spencer Ingley. His project proposal was described in his presentation as “promoting inclusion and retention of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students” in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.

Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students tend to not go as far in STEM fields as their peers of other races do, said Ingley, describing the process as a “leaky pipeline.” While plenty of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders get bachelor’s degrees, few get doctorates, he added.

According to Ingley, one possible explanation for this, and the angle he wished to research, is a “disconnect between traditional values, traditional knowledge and western science.” His proposal outlined a three-year project with the aim of integrating indigenous values into scientific education.

The purpose of the professorship award, according to the BYU–Hawaii academics administration website, is to encourage “all faculty to engage in continuous development and improvement in scholarship … to support scholarship and to highlight its importance for faculty.”

The professorship award is applied for by professors who have an idea for a research study or program that would improve academic achievement at BYUH. Each proposal is reviewed by the Faculty Advisory Committee and the winner is granted money, resources and the opportunity to take time off teaching class to pursue their research.

Carrying out the research

Ingley explained biologists typically rely heavily on external grants and so he approached the professorship award the same way he would the National Science Foundation.

While the exact amount of funding he will be receiving was not disclosed, Ingley said 60% of the budget goes to travel, including two trips to Samoa with two students, and the rest goes to materials and supplies, such as plants, signage and other classroom materials.

The use of student workers significantly reduces the budget, Ingley added.

One key area of the project involves the Natural Teaching Area, which is the ecological restoration site located behind the science building. The site is currently over two years old and contains three dozen native plants, half of which are endemic (meaning only found in Hawaii) and a dozen of which are endangered, according to Ingley.

There are “plants for people to see and connect with that would otherwise be impossible to connect with without taking a helicopter to the summit [of Oahu’s mountains],” Ingley said. He described how the long-term plan for the Natural Teaching Area, as outlined in his proposal, included visitor materials such as signs explaining the plants, animals and natural processes that take place in the site.

Those signs, he explained, would be changed out as needed to emphasize and integrate traditional cultural knowledge with western scientific knowledge. With this, visitor engagement would be studied in the context of retention, understanding and belonging.

Intervention materials are also being developed for use in classrooms, Ingley said, with activity and participation levels being recorded to find the most effective teaching methods. BYUH alumna Beka Greenall was credited as a collaborator on this part of the project.

Beyond the three years outlined in his professorship award proposal, Ingley said he hopes to get students and faculty in the education and Hawaiian Studies programs involved. He said he anticipates students at undergraduate research conferences presenting on branch off projects related to this effort.

Ingley described the project as being three-quarters done. He added many scientists “can’t really get a grant until [they’ve] done the legwork already.” Referring to the current state of the Natural Teaching Area, he said they are “doing a lot with the materials [they] already have.”

The Natural Teaching Area, Ingley stated, started out as “dumping grounds” but was cleaned up and replanted by a team of students, Temple View Apartments residents, BYUH facilities, Laie Elementary School students and community members. Ingley added Dr. David Bybee, the director Kumuwaiwai Center for Sustainability and an
associate professor at BYUH, was “involved in the sustainability aspect.”

The long-term plans for the Natural Teaching Area were inspired by the Conservation Fale in Samoa, a visitor’s center dedicated to a blend of western and indigenous science, Ingley said.