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How robots can teach Native American children the power of 'us being ourselves'

Danielle Boyer and mentee Vinaya Gunasekar build robots together at The STEAM Connection. (Courtesy of Danielle Boyer)
Danielle Boyer and mentee Vinaya Gunasekar build robots together at The STEAM Connection. (Courtesy of Danielle Boyer)

Danielle Boyer realized at age 10 that the kids in her Ojibwe community weren’t learning about their own Indigenous culture and history.

Oftentimes, schools only teach about colonial settlers’ encounters with Native Americans instead of focusing on their culture and history. So Boyer asked her mother to let her teach a class to kindergartners. As she grew older, the now 21-year-old began building robots that spoke Native languages and shared them with other indigenous youth.

Danielle Boyer. (Courtesy of Danielle Boyer)

Today, Boyer is the founder of The STEAM Connection, a nonprofit that has built and shared more than 8,000 wearable robots. Boyer says robots have the capability to teach a wide range of tech skills, from electrical engineering to team building. They’re an “all-encompassing tool that kind of gives us back a lot of power,” Boyer says. And, they help prevent indigenous languages from dying out if they aren’t taught culturally.

But it’s not cheap, and learning about them is even less accessible. As a kid, Boyer joined a robotics team after developing an interest in robots. Despite the initial excitement to participate — and the expensive cost to join — Boyer was bullied the entire time. It was clear the other students didn’t want her there, she says. She joined another team but faced the same kind of harassment.

“I created my organization because every student deserves to have a safe space to learn and to be themselves,” she says. “And that’s why I’m doing the work that I do now.”

Danielle Boyer was an invitee of the White House to speak at the MTV Youth Action Forum. (Courtesy of Danielle Boyer)

Half the size of a human head, the robots can sit on Boyer’s shoulder. They look like minions — unintentional, Boyer says — but students can customize them and include different elements from their culture such as ribbon skirts, hats, beads or earrings. Boyer decorated her robot with Ojibwe woodland flowers and other elements representing her community.

Boyer wants her students to have the skills they need to create things for the community, whether it’s robots or anything else, she says. One of Boyer’s students once said that she was the first Native person they’d seen in robotics and she inspired them to get into it.

“That really made me emotional and inspired to see the power that us being ourselves has and being authentic to ourselves, to our community,” Boyer says. “I just think that’s such a beautiful thing.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.