The science behind survival

On a recent evening in Juneau, seven Juneau-Douglas High School students gathered at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Hunter Education Shooting Complex and watched Range Safety Officer Steve Hildebrand discuss gun safety and shooting positions, complete with references to isosceles triangles. Shortly afterward, they entered the gun range to shoot rifles themselves.


The students are part of an Outdoor Biology class at JDHS. All together, said science teacher Henry Hopkins, 55 students are taking the class; they’re visiting the gun range seven at a time, one student per shooting lane — and, on this night, one student per adult volunteer.

Outdoor Biology, said Hopkins, is both a community-based and a locally inspired class. It’s a mix, he said, of wildlife topics and “hands-on outdoor skills.” Over the course of a year, students discuss the biology involved in fishing, hunting and wildlife management; they make Tlingit subsistence tools like halibut hooks; they discuss the physical science involved in canoes and traditional Tlingit canoe modifications to increase hull speed; they discuss bear behavior, physiology and safety; they learn about fish processing and both traditional and modern methods of fish preservation, and they learn about wildlife genetics, among other topics.

“Because it’s expert-based, what you do depends on who you can get to come and do cool things,” Hopkins said. “It’s awesome to be able to plug into this amount of talent.”

Recent experts visiting the class have included local carver Ray Watkins and Riley Woodford with ADF&G, among others, Hopkins said. At the range, volunteers included a retired Air Force Combat Controller, life-long hunters and NRA certified rifle instructors.

In the weeks dedicated to guns, students not only learn how to handle rifles safely, but they also learn about trajectories, bullet weights and reloading, which is “100 percent physics,” Hopkins said.

At the range, students learn safety, responsibility and ethics around firearms, said volunteer Bruce Bowler, Alaska Civilian Marksmanship Program State Junior Director. Knowledge, skills and attitude are also important, he said.

“The only way you can really fail the (gun) class is to have a bad attitude,” he said. “The goal is to make sure there are no negligent discharges that hurt anybody.”

Students take Outdoor Biology in addition to or instead of chemistry or physics; they must have taken biology and physical science as prerequisites.

“We do so much more stuff (than a normal science class),” said student Emma Hopkins.

One of her favorite aspects of the class so far is its link to traditional Tlingit subsistence methods.

“It’s all the stuff in museums, and you actually make it,” she said.

Kris Hill said he liked learning about wildlife, bears in particular. Jake Bicnell and Cheyenne Helmers said they liked the interactive aspect of the class.

“You don’t just sit and listen to the teacher talk,” Bicnell said. “You get to do stuff and learn a lot.”

A similar class exists at Thunder Mountain High School.


• Contact Outdoors reporter Mary Catharine Martin at


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