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Native science program expands, focuses on rural education

Posted: October 21, 2013 - 12:01am

The University of Alaska’s acclaimed Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program known as ANSEP is embarked on an ambitious course that could remake rural Alaska education if it could be expanded.

“It’s clear now. ANSEP student performance at every level far exceeds state and national numbers,” says Prof. Herb Schroeder, ANSEP’s founder. “We have a good start in meeting our objective of creating enduring systemic change in the hiring patterns of Alaska Natives in the science and engineering professions,” because of a strengthened education system that begins in rural middle schools and high schools and extends to the university level.

There are now about 400 Alaska Native students in the university’s science and engineering programs, he said. In 1995, when ANSEP started, there was one. In 2012 the university graduated 32 students with degrees in science and engineering. The 2013 graduation count is not yet confirmed.

ANSEP’s success has attracted attention for several years from major organizations like the National Science Foundation, major corporations like Alaska oil producers BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil as well as Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.

The Pebble Partnership, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and NANA Regional Corp. are strong supporters, as are federal and state agencies that are supporting the students in the sciences.

ANSEP’s formula is not complicated, and Schroeder thinks it can be replicated in other fields of study and with all students, Native and non-Native. The university has a version of it underway in the health care field, in fact.

The strategy is to begin early, at the middle school level, to build interest and encourage young people to take science and math courses. This continues into high school, where ANSEP includes an incentive — a computer the student assembles and gets to keep if he or she takes and passes certain courses.

The goal is to set high expectations for students but also to provide support. At the university, for example, there is a big emphasis on peer-taught study groups, with older ANSEP students teaching younger ones so that the older Native students are seen as role models.

Staring early is crucial, however, and because there are limits to courses and instructional expertise in small rural schools, ANSEP has started a program to bring high school and more recently middle school students to the University of Alaska Anchorage campus for summer intensives. Students, who are supervised, live in the UAA dorms.

For high school graduates there is a “Summer Bridge” program, a more intense summer program of eight weeks, to prepare a student for entry into the university.

Students who have been in the summer high school “Acceleration Academies” begin Summer Bridge when they graduate and work internships with ANSEP partner organizations.

The program is reaching students in 95 communities, mostly small and in rural areas, and the preparation is paying off. More than 80 percent of the middle school students graduating from eighth grade who have been through ANSEP’s Middle School Academy have completed Algebra 1. Nationally, only 26 percent of students achieve this, Schroeder said.

“Our middle school students transition into the high school ANSEP Acceleration Academy and as a result we are rapidly increasing the number of ANSEP students fully prepared, before they leave high school, for science and engineering study programs at the university,” he said.

“We have freshmen who are arriving at the university ready for Calculus 3 and differential equations. In spring 2013, a student from Nome successfully completed advanced engineering math prior to high school graduation.”

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