Students from Gladys Jung Middle School in Bethel and other rural communities have taken off for a special science and math program in Anchorage.
Sixth-graders Susanna Pitka and Hunter Wright are just two kids out of about 50 students chosen to attend the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program’s Middle School Academy.
“I wanted to go because I wanted to have a good career and be a state trooper when I grow up, and probably after that become an engineer,” Pitka said.
Wright also has aspirations of becoming an engineer. His family moved to Bethel from Georgia two years ago. Even though he’s not from the area, he says he knows how important it is to have two weeks to focus on math and science.
“I think it’s great because some kids from the Bethel region and other villages, they don’t get the same learning of science as other kids do,” Wright said.
His teacher Beverly Chmielarczyk chaperoned the trip last year. She’s been teaching in Bethel for 17 years and said science plays an important role for students in the Lower Kuskokwim Delta.
“The kids out here, I think they live in science,” Chmielarczyk explained. “They’re out at fish camps every summer. There’s a lot of Native knowledge that relates to science that has been handed down for generations.”
In Anchorage on Thursday morning, the students met at the ANSEP Academy building at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Their first task was to build a computer. Students will be able to keep the computers they build if they complete an Algebra I math class by the time they’re in eighth grade.
“It’s cool because my sister always plays mine. So it will be cool to have my own computer,” Wright said.
Herb Shroeder started ANSEP 20 years ago. He says he’s passionate about getting kids involved in the classroom to prepare them for careers that will help their community.
“There’s nothing more important than preparing Alaska Native people in science and engineering so they have a seat at the table when decisions are made about the land that they’ve lived on for 10,000 years,” Shroeder said.
In addition to constructing computers, the students will also take a field trip down to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward to dissect squid. They’ll also build bridges out of balsa wood to test their earthquake engineering skills.
The Middle School Academy also teaches many lessons outside the classroom by exposing students to a new social setting. They stay in dorms on the UAA campus to get a little taste of what pursuing higher education will be like.
“It’s kind of preparing you for college and it’s really cool to have the experience so you’re not clueless when you get into college,” Wright said.
The program is a way to not only get kids thinking about their future, but also giving them the tools to make it happen.
This is the first of eight middle school academies in 2015. Over the next three years, ANSEP will bring about 2,000 kids to Anchorage for the same kind of program, made possible by a $1 million grant from Alaska Airlines.