Image of student operating pedal cart

White Earth Nation students learned about distracted driving while
operating pedal carts.

In June, more than 40 White Earth Nation (Minnesota) students were introduced to a variety of transportation topics in a daylong session offered by the Roadway Safety Institute (RSI).

The session was part of the White Earth Indian Reservation Summer Academy of Math and Science, a two-week day camp for reservation youth in grades 4 to 8. The camp focuses on hands-on learning and uses Indian culture and heritage as a vehicle for studying math, science, and engineering. It is offered in partnership by the White Earth Nation and the University of Minnesota Extension.

“This is a unique program that has been a great way to meet RSI’s objectives of teaching safety and building tribal partnerships,” says Colleen O’Connor Toberman, program coordinator with  RSI.

This year, staff led students through a variety of interactive activities to spark their interest in transportation, engineering, and safety.

In a lesson on road sign design, students learned about sign retroreflectivity, shape, and color before creating their own road signs using the Ojibwe names for local places.

Image of students talking with police officer

Investigator Aaron Churness of the U of MN PD talks safety with
NTSI campers.

Students experienced the dangers of distraction by getting behind the wheel of pedal carts in a lesson co-taught by Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths program regional coordinator Tom Nixon. The lesson demonstrated how distractions and multitasking impair essential concentration while driving and walking. Nixon also engaged students in discussions about booster seats and seat belt use, sharing ideas to help students encourage their friends and relatives to buckle up. 

“Just knowing how high the [roadway] death rate is in our reservation communities…anything we can incorporate into our curriculum to try and keep our young people safe is a very worthwhile part of the program,” says Deb Zak, regional director of the U of M Extension’s Northwest District.

Nixon hopes students will make safer driving choices in the future based on what they learned. “The great opportunity we had today was to talk to them before they become drivers,” he says. “We wanted them to learn about what their actions will lead to and the limitations of their abilities [when they’re distracted]. The more educated they are, the more aware they’ll be of what their choices will mean.”

The Roadway Safety Institute also sponsored a day focused on safety at the second annual National Summer Transportation Institute (NSTI) hosted by the Center for Transportation Studies in July on the University of Minnesota campus. The interactive two-week day camp for students in grades 7 to 9 featured classroom and lab sessions with transportation experts as well as field trips to facilities across the Twin Cities.

The day began with RSI researcher Nichole Morris giving campers an introduction to human factors. Later, the students tried navigating a pedal cart obstacle course to learn about the dangers of distracted driving, wore specialized goggles to experience the impairing effects of alcohol, and explored a UMPD vehicle with a campus police officer.

Overall, camper evaluations indicate that the program helped students become more aware of the wide range of possible careers in transportation. Parents reported that students not only enjoyed the camp but also took the lessons they learned to heart.

“[My daughter] became more aware of the importance of road safety,” one parent said. “She’s constantly making sure we are not touching our phones while we’re driving.”

NSTI is part of a national program designed to attract a diverse range of students to education and career opportunities in transportation. It was sponsored by CTS with funding from the Federal Highway Administration administered by MnDOT.


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