Dr. Wirta Kosobuski Partners with Minnesota Reservations to Develop Community-Based Science Curriculum

At the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth Campus, the student population looks a little young on this sunny morning. About 50 elementary students in white lab coats, safety glasses, and matching backpacks mill around the main hall before grouping up to follow one of three scientists to his/her lab.

The students, from Nett Lake Elementary, are having a great time. It is highly possible that the scientists leading them through experiments and getting them acquainted with science labs are having an even better time.

This synergy—role modeling and encouragement from the faculty, and energy and enthusiasm from the students—is part of what Anna Wirta Kosobuski, PhD works hard to create in community-based science programs in northern Minnesota.

Born and raised in Embarrass, MN, Wirta Kosobuski’s deep belief in the power of role models stems from the influence her father had on their community. A member of the Ojibwe tribe and a middle school teacher, he was one of only two Native American educators in the area—perhaps in the state of Minnesota—in the 1960s-70s. This is also a source of her community connection. Nett Lake elementary students once transferred to her father’s school, and to this day, his former students speak of the powerful positive impact he had on their lives.

This circular theme of connectedness appears often in her life and work. Her love of science began when she attended a science program for Native American students at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, where she later returned to earn her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees and eventually teach.

It was there, while working at the Center of American Indian and Minority Health as the associate director, that she became aware of how critically underrepresented native people are in science and medicine. She saw a huge unmet need for scientists from the native culture to focus on the needs unique to the community that are not studied by others. She also saw an opportunity to have an impact on young students and to develop their interests in these areas.

Those elementary students in lab coats are the outgrowth of these ideas and a lot of collaboration with local communities. Wirta Kosobuski’s own personal experience and contacts with the Bois Forte band, combined with her skills and knowledge, made working with students from the Nett Lake and Grand Portage reservations a perfect match.

Wirta Kosobuski recently received the President’s Outstanding Community Service Award, and from her description of how she has approached her projects, it is easy to see why. When she discusses working with the communities, respect, sensitivity, and self-determination are common themes. “It takes time to truly make those strong, trusting connections,” she explains, and the key to the success of these programs is that it is the communities themselves that determine what they want and what the children need.

Since these communities are geographically isolated, the focus is on bringing resources to the schools and using local input to develop culturally specific approaches to the curriculum. Wirta Kosobuski puts her science, education, and administrative skills to work in creating programs that allow students to make meaningful connections between science and the world around them, often using the outdoors as their extended classroom. Community elders bring traditional teachings and practices to the students. It is this interconnectedness that gives these programs impact.

When Wirta Kosobuski is asked about what drives her to develop these community relationships, she responds with a story about a fifth grader who, when asked where he saw himself as a grownup, replied, “I’m going to be an astrophysicist!”

“I wanted to give this talented kid a chance to achieve his dream,” she says simply.

Thanks to Wirta Kosobuski’s work, many children will have a better chance to achieve their dreams, and Minnesota will benefit from a future generation of scientists and medical caregivers from these Native American communities.