Science Story August 2022

Ute STEM Group 2018 San Luis Valley, CO

Native know-how

They are the longest continuous residents of Colorado. They have lived in the Rocky Mountains since time immemorial and are still here today. Their original territory was a massive landscape covering most of Colorado and Utah and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. They are the Ute Indians.

A traveling exhibit about the Ute people has set up camp at the RMBL Visitor Center. Its purpose? Reveal the connection between the ancient knowledge of the Ute tribes and the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at the core of modern education.

The exhibit is one piece of the Ute STEM project, which was created by History Colorado (the state’s historical society), funded by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and brought to RMBL through a partnership with the three Ute Indian Tribes and the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, Colorado.

Designed to highlight the intersection of Western STEM disciplines and Ute traditional ecological knowledge, the project is a five-year study arising from collaborative archaeological and ethnobotanical field work at historic Colorado Ute sites in 2017, 2018, and 2019. During these field visits, both Ute elders and Western scientists shared their knowledge of archaeology, ethnobotany, and ecology with Ute youth. The Ute participants represented the three federally recognized Ute tribes living in Colorado and Utah: the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Tribe, and the Ute Indian Tribe of Uintah and Ouray Reservation. Liz Cook, who works in exhibit development and educational programming at History Colorado, is co-principal investigator.

Ute STEM interactive exhibits and videos are on display at the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose and the History Colorado Center in Denver. Portable exhibits have been installed at each of the three Ute tribes and throughout the region at community colleges, local historical societies, and visitor centers like RMBL’s. Among other displays of Ute history, culture, and ecological knowledge, there are nine short videos that follow the young Ute participants, which can be viewed at

A substantial part of the Ute STEM project are the educational outreach programs for K-12 students, families, and adults. A hands-on history kit designed for third through fifth graders contains activities that help students explore how the Utes put STEM into practice. The project has also shared findings with scientists, museums, and tribes.

Utes are known as Colorado’s first scientists. They used engineering to design shelters, used math for decorative arts and travel, and employed technology to convert natural materials into tools and clothing. What’s more, their deep understanding of and relationship with the Colorado environment — gained through observation and interaction with plants, animals, landscapes, weather, and seasons — equipped them with the practical knowledge to thrive in the Rockies for generations. As Garrett Briggs of the Southern Ute Tribe declared on a 2017 field visit, “There were Ute scientists before there were scientists and Ute astronomers before there was astronomy!”

Liz says that the Ute STEM project’s overarching aim, and the rationale behind its winning an NSF grant, is to inspire people to think about science in new ways, to create a lightbulb moment where people see that science is more than an academic subject; it’s common sense. It’s part of everyday life.

Aware that the project has already planted some seeds, Liz says, “It was moving to see Ute youth make connections to the deep knowledge of Colorado ecosystems that have been at the heart of Ute life for centuries.” She says she’s proud that the project will not only help people see connections between Ute knowledge and STEM but also help them connect STEM to their own lives. It’s how we all survive in this ancient, modern world.


Liz Cook is a Denver native with over 25 years of experience in informal education programs and museum exhibit development. Since 2011, Liz has served as the environmental educator at History Colorado in Denver. She is currently the Co-Principal Investigator on a five-year, NSF-funded project to explore the integration of traditional Ute ecological knowledge and Western STEM practices. Liz served as the lead developer for new exhibits at the Ute Indian Museum and History Colorado Center and helped to develop the Living West exhibit and programs at History Colorado Center. Liz also worked at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science where she managed the Discovery Zone early-learners exhibit and served as the educator for over 20 traveling exhibits.