Students keep role in Sitka Ocean Study

Pacific High School students Jake Kranz and Charlie Skultka take a water sample at Crescent Harbor in Sitka, Alaska on Jan. 18, 2013. The students are part of a team monitoring water acidity in Sitka. (AP Photo/Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson)

SITKA — “It’s going to be nice to get my handwriting out of this book,” said Eric Matthes, science teacher at Pacific High School.


Every month, for about a year and a half, Matthes has taken Pacific High students across the street to Crescent Harbor to collect samples of ocean water that are sent to the Auke Bay Laboratory in Juneau as a part of a broader study on ocean acidification.

From now on it will be the handwriting of Madison Kosma, an Americorps volunteer with the Sitka Sound Science Center, who shows up in the book recording the sampling data collected by the students.

Last month, Matthes turned the field work over to Kosma. Her participation will make it easier to maintain a consistent sampling schedule, he said. The one thing that won’t change is the active participation of Pacific High students in gathering the samples.

“It’s been more of a challenge than I thought it would be just to do the sampling,” Matthes said.

For a single day’s sample, Matthes has to pick up the sampling materials from the airport after they are flown in from Juneau; prepare the materials; take the class out for a sample; and then repackage the samples for the trip back. Between the prep work and hoping for good weather, it was a challenge to fit the field work into a school schedule.

“It’s an hour and a half to two hours each time we do it, so it can’t be tied to any one class,” Matthes said.

The program started when scientists at NOAA, interested in monitoring ocean acidification around Alaska, contacted the SSSC about a sampling site near Sitka.

“The fact that Sitka experiences some flow from the open ocean that we don’t get here in Juneau is important to our samples,” said Lawrence Schaufler, a research chemist for NOAA.

Once the science center was on board for the sampling, it partnered with Matthes to allow Pacific High students to do the testing.

The testing involves taking a pair of samples from Crescent Harbor, one at the surface and one from about 10 meters deep. Those samples are secured in glass jars and shipped overnight to the Auke Bay lab to be catalogued.

Matthes said despite the heavy boat traffic at Crescent Harbor, it’s actually an ideal location for testing.

“To a lot of people it looks like a pretty bad sample spot because it’s right next to the harbor and people can see a little sheen of oil sometimes,” Matthes said.

As the tide comes in and out, however, the harbor is flushed and filled with water from the open ocean.

“There’s something like a million gallons of water that flush by that sampling site every six hours, which makes it a pretty good sampling site,” Matthes said.

When the students collect the water the sample is tested for temperature and its pH level, a measure of acidity. The data can show if the oceans are becoming more acidic as a result of oceans absorbing more carbon dioxide as the planet heats up.

More acidic oceans affect coral reefs, shellfish and other organisms that grow their shells out of calcium carbonate, like krill or crabs.

“The goal of this project is to catch those changes before they’re significant enough that they start to affect the large-scale health of the ocean,” Matthes said. “If you sketch out the acidity of the ocean over time, the ocean naturally has these variations, so you really do need a five to 10 years’ worth of data to see whether the acidity is increasing or if your just getting fluctuations.”

Last October the program lost funding, but that didn’t affect the Sitka ocean sampling because of the value NOAA placed on it for its location and its outreach to students.

“Part of the reason for (continuing sampling here) is that they value our position but also this is the only place where high school students are involved in the field work,” Matthes said.

Schaufler said the involvement with the high school is in line with NOAA’s goals.

“We’re very happy to have the involvement with the high school,” Schaufler said. “One of our goals is to broaden outreach and spread science to kids, and this certainly does that.”

That student involvement is the same reason Matthes has worked to get the sampling done and why he’s turning the program over to Kosma, who will keep the students involved.

“They keep inspiring me because I get frustrated sometimes by the logistics of having to drop my current classes to deal with this every month. I do this every month but I forget that students haven’t done this before,” Matthes said.

“They’re very curious about going through that process and seeing what we’re finding and they want to see it continue.”

On top of being curious, they’re also good at it.

Makayla Huls is one of the students who has been with the program since it started. She was in Matthes’ precursor class, Healthy Oceans, and has been at nearly every testing, even during the summer when school is out.

While briefing Kosma on the logistics of taking over the testing, Matthes was quick to point out that his students are to answer a lot of the questions that may come up later.

“I’ve been doing it since it started,” Huls said. “It’s fun. Sometimes it’s cold. There’s been days we’ve come out and it’s like 5 degrees. When it’s cold like that we just do the sampling and we don’t do any of the other stuff.”

Huls said the program is effective in broadening the students’ interests in science.

“Well, I used to think I hated science until I found out you could do hands-on stuff,” Huls said. “It’s more interesting to me and I learn it better cause now I know what the pH is and I know what things they’re testing for when they do pH balance in the water.”

Huls and other Pacific High students probably won’t need much coaching in the field work but Kosma can provide it if they do. Kosma studied the effects of ocean acidification on coral reefs at the University of Hawaii and has done her share of water testing.

“I helped someone with their PhD and they had 24 tanks and I had to take alkaline pH of every single tank like three times a week,” Kosma said.

Even so, she said, the Jan. 18 refresher was helpful.

“I think I dropped it out of my brain a little bit because it was so painful,” Kosma joked. “I don’t know it anymore.”

Kosma added that she’s happy to be working in the program. She said the project is a way to advance learning beyond the textbook.

“It’s good, too, because a lot of kids don’t really like chemistry so this is a really cool aspect of it and you can see how it relates back to the animals more and you get kids out in the ocean or outside looking at the issues,” Kosma said.

Huls said the program fits in line with the alternative high school’s reputation for teaching.

“Pacific High is more hands on, and like, my mom didn’t understand it at first but once we explained it to her she understood why we were getting the pH and what it meant,” Huls said.

Kosma and Matthes are hoping that switching the field work to the SSSC will give them more opportunities to delve into the classroom aspects of ocean acidification.

“It’s a topic too that a lot of youth don’t know about, ocean acidification,” Kosma said. “It’s a big issue, especially with the marine world, so it’s good to have it. I certainly never heard that word when I was in high school.”


Information from: Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel,


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