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Sun to Sea Camp connects middle school students with scientists

Posted: June 18, 2011 - 6:13pm
Cale Jenkins (left) and Sam Siroky
Cale Jenkins (left) and Sam Siroky

Last week, a group of kids in red and blue life jackets gathered at the edge of a dock in Auke Bay with fishing rods in hand and lines in the water.

Suddenly, a splash and shout of excitement arose from the group as 12-year-old Sam Siroky lifted a glistening yellowfin sole into the afternoon sunshine.

Siroky and the others were participants in the week-long Sun to Sea Camp for kids who will be entering sixth- through ninth-grades this fall. The camp is one of several summer science programs coordinated by the Juneau Economic Development Council (JEDC) in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, Fisheries and the NOAA National Weather Service (NWS). Major funding for the camps comes from the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Defense Education Program.

Siroky is from southern California, but he visits Juneau every summer.

“At first, I thought this camp would be really boring, but it wasn’t,” he said. “We learned a lot of interesting stuff like ocean acidification and how to dissect herring. We also went for a hike at the National Weather Service station.”

The camp was originally envisioned by Tom Rutecki, a NOAA marine fish biologist.

As he helped the kids tie lures onto their rods, Rutecki said “We wanted to show kids the connection between weather and the ocean, that climate is a function of the ocean.”

The kids at the Sun to Sea Camp have spent the week in a variety of locations, including the NOAA Auke Bay Laboratory, NOAA’s new Lena Point facility, and the National Weather Service station on the Mendenhall Back Loop Road.

One of the most popular activities was using the underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV).

“It’s basically like a sled with cameras,” said Rutecki.

The students built their own model ROV, and later they went out on the water to operate the actual ROV equipment used by NOAA scientists.

“I really liked learning about ocean currents,” said Madeline Handley, who was waiting for assistance with the lure on her pole.

Nearby, McLain Sidmore mentioned that she enjoyed going out in a boat to drive the ROV. “We saw clam beds, giant sea stars, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers,” she said.

The kids also shared their experience learning about paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP).

“We dug up the clams, took out the insides, and cut them up,” Jenae Kesey said. “Then, we blended it up with alcohol and strained it to make a clam extract.”

The students added a solution to test the clams for PSP and found that every sample was poisoned. When asked what they learned from this lesson, the students chimed altogether, “Don’t eat the clams!”

Bonita Nelson, a NOAA fisheries research biologist who also runs community outreach programs at the NOAA Auke Bay Laboratory, said the camp gives middle school students the opportunity to interact with NOAA scientists beyond what they might otherwise experience during a short school presentation or field trip.

“In this program, the kids visited where we work, and they were able to see what tools and process we use,” Nelson said. “It gave them a realistic idea about what we do as scientists and also how our work with the federal benefits them and their community.”

The camp was a good mix of outdoor activities, such as field trips on the boats, and indoor activities, such as learning about oil spills.

Nelson said she hopes the students will continue to be in touch with NOAA long after the camp has finished.

“Maybe the kids and their parents will feel more encouraged to call someone at our offices if they are doing research for school, or if they are looking at career goals,” she said. “As federal employees, we welcome this kind of interaction with the public.”

Kathleen Galau, a science teacher at Thunder Mountain High School and lead instructor for the camp, marveled that the NOAA scientists donated their time to prepare the activities and donated materials for the program.

“We have amazing scientists in Juneau, and the kids had the chance to see these scientists as real people, working right here in their community,” she said. “Maybe some of these kids will be our next NOAA scientists!”

Fourteen-year-old Serena Partlow enjoyed last year’s camp so much that she decided to volunteer as a mentor for younger kids this year.

“This camp makes science more real than in a classroom,” she said. “In a class, you just sit there or read a book, but here, everything is hands-on. You learn so much more.”

Partlow added the most valuable aspect of the camp was learning about how everything is connected.

“Maybe some of us have heard about PSP, ROV’s, or climate change before,” she said. “Here, we learned how it all fits together in the big picture.”

“This is the third year of the Sun to Sea camp. Over the past three years, we’ve had over 40 kids go through the program,” reported Bob Vieth of JEDC’s staff for the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program.

According to Larry West, the JEDC communications specialist for the SpringBoard and STEM programs, this camp and similar programs aim to inspire students’ interest in the STEM fields.

“By giving kids these opportunities while they’re young, it’s the first step in creating a high quality workforce, which is a valuable contribution to the country,” he said.

Currently, JEDC is seeking major funding to continue providing programs such as the Sun to Sea Camp because the current federal funds are not being reallocated. Businesses are encouraged to contact JEDC for sponsorship information.

“In addition to being popular with the kids, the camps encourage them to stay in Alaska to pursue careers in the STEM fields,” West said. “Ultimately, this boosts the health of the regional economy.”

Back at the dock, Cale Jenkins squinted in the sunshine.

“I love whales, dolphins, and all kinds of marine life, so this camp was really cool,” he said. “They showed us that science is not just working with test tubes. You get to go out on boats, go fishing, and also look at organisms under microscopes.”

He reflected a bit and added, “I’d like to be a marine biologist when I grow up so that I can do what these people do every day.”

• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer based in Juneau. She can be contacted at jennu.jnu@gmail.com

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