TMHS students clean, reassemble sea otter skeleton

DEM BONES course beginning of partnership between TMHS, UAF
Thunder Mountain High School students Amber Paquin, left, Kasie Johnston, center, and Courtney Johnson look at the sea otter skeleton they helped reassemble this semester in a University of Alaska Fairbanks marine science class taught by UAF professor Shannon Atkinson and TMHS marine sciences teachers Clay Good and Kristen Wells. Seventeen high school students earned two college credits at UAF.

About 20 Thunder Mountain High School students spent the spring semester digging through stinky sea otter guts, fishing out bones and gluing them back together. The end result — a preserved, cleaned sea otter skeleton on display.


The students took part in the class at TMHS, but it was taught with University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Shannon Atkinson and TMHS marine sciences teachers Clay Good and Kristen Wells. The class is new this year and available for dual credit and is named: DEM BONES. DEM BONES is an acronym for Distinctive Education in Motion, Biodiversity of Nature and Environmental Stewardship.

TMHS students and Atkinson held a presentation Friday afternoon for their parents. It featured a sideshow of not only the sea otter they dissected and delved into, diligently collecting each bone, but also of other marine animals the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration site was working on. Students are seen hands deep into the animals, but also with their hooded sweatshirts bunched up around their faces, covering their noses.

The sea otter was donated by the U.S. Department of Fish and Game, which found it dead and rotting on a beach.

A sea otter pelt was donated by Kyle Barry, a Tlingit whose family uses sea otter pelts to make vests, hats and blankets.

Students unveiled the cleaned skeleton of the sea otter, which is in a display case in the TMHS commons. Behind the skeleton, which is hanging in the case, is the donated pelt, pictures of the students working on the remains and information about the project.

“We started this project not realizing quite how in-depth it was going to get,” Atkinson said. “It started as somewhat of an idea. I was talking to someone at the fish service, who said, ‘you know, kids aren’t getting enough hands-on experience.’”

UAF and its Juneau Center of the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences worked to get a $25,000 grant to offer the course to high school students.

“With the help of two assistants, we dismembered this carcass and we cooked it up,” Atkinson said. “The process is a lot like making turkey soup. You boil it lightly ‘til the meat falls off.”

Students were divided into small groups and each got a hind limb or front, but their first assignment was to find out how many bones were in each section — about 40.

“Students came back and we had a couple pretty good guesses,” she said. “I said OK, now you have to go in and find all of them.

“So we had a rather large gross piece of meat, and I told them they can’t throw anything away. They had to find their 40 bones and pull them all out. Then came the process of cleaning it up. While we were doing some of the clean up, the students then had the fortune of going to the NOAA facility. They had done some necropsies out there.”

Throughout the semester there also were several guest speakers, which included discussions on culture, societal values, economic values and environmental values.

“Sea otters come in and compete with fishermen for some of the resources,” Atkinson explained. “We talked a lot about these kinds of things.”
She said interactions between public policy and science are becoming more and more prominent and important.

Principal Dan Larson said he couldn’t think of a better way to have place-based, hands-on education than through marine biology.

“I went in there early on when it was pretty hard to be in there,” Larson said, waiving his hand in front of his face. “As administrators we’re always asked what does engagement look like. I will tell you that in that classroom … 100 percent engagement was obvious watching the students work with each and every bone from that carcass.”

Senior Courtney Johnson felt the class was a good experience.

“We really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into,” she said. “It’s one of those things you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you experience it firsthand. We were a little cautious at first. We didn’t really know how we quite felt about it.”

After they started digging into the project, there was no stopping them — except maybe to open the window a bit more.

“This is the best way you can learn and that’s first hand and hands on,” Johnson said. “There is a big difference between reading in a textbook that’s telling you about the intricacies of a sea otter paw and actually spending several hours, several sticks of hot glue, putting the paw back together. I want to thank everybody who was involved. It’s been the most interesting and engaging science class we’ve probably ever had.”

Junior Kaity Wyatt took the course because she needed an extra science credit.

“We didn’t know we were doing this project and it sounded really cool,” she said. “I was really excited about it.”

As she got further into the class it was even more exciting for her because Wyatt enjoys dissecting things.

“I like science and math the best,” she said. “I want to go into ultrasound so it kind of ties in with that — anatomy I guess.”

Students said the smallest bones took them the longest to find, and those were in the paws.

Atkinson said the sea otter will stay at Thunder Mountain for the next year and it will probably go in a display case at the university after that. Next year’s project will take its place at Thunder Mountain.

Atkinson said that this summer a high school and middle school class in Sitka will get to clean and reassemble a killer whale that came ashore.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at


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