Multi-discipline magic: Teacher blends science, music

Posted: Friday, February 14, 2003

Music, sea life, salmon marketing, self-esteem and teaching - different passions, one sixth-grade teacher.

"I love science, and I love the outdoors," said Belle Mickelson, who began teaching at Floyd Dryden Middle School last fall. "Anything with field trips ... and music too."

As she sits in her classroom, a space filled with science posters, music posters, maps, aquariums, musical instruments, a bicycle, a pair of skis, and an oversized stuffed animal, Mickelson appears to be someone who simply wants to help all of her students achieve their full potential.

She is more than that. She has spent much of her life in Alaska spreading knowledge of science and music. Though she moved to Juneau only last summer, the town has benefited from her labor for many years, particularly in the Seaweek program and in the bluegrass camp she started in Cordova and that now travels throughout the state.

It all comes back to teaching, though.

"I feel like teaching is such a gift, to get to work with these students," she said. "You have such an impact on their lives."

Teaching science is a way for Mickelson to combine several of her interests - especially music.

"As a scientist, a science person, I think music can have such a huge impact on students," Mickelson said. She uses music to build her students' self-esteem.

"Folk instruments are easy," she said. "With three chords on a mandolin or guitar, they can play hundreds of songs."

Music "helps people feel happy and positive and enjoy school. If a kid feels good about music and art and gets the confidence built, then it's way easier to handle math or science."

Mickelson uses music in her sixth-grade class by singing to and playing songs for the students. She also incorporates it into her science labs. Eventually she would like her students to write songs to help them remember science principles.

The class recently performed a lab exercise on sound that had each of them plucking on guitars. Mickelson, who developed the lab, asked them questions about the pitch of the different strings, the purpose of the frets and sound box, the reason for using the different types of wood, and the frequency and amplitude of different strings.

Once they answered the questions, students were allowed to experiment and try to play chords. Though they're not all musicians, most students were excited about the lab.

"I'm hoping that by the end of the year everybody in the class will play at least three chords on at least one of these instruments," Mickelson said. Instruments in the classroom include violins, guitars, mandolins and banjos.

Mickelson, who has a master's degree in environmental education, is one of the reasons Seaweek, a multi-discipline marine education program started by Juneau residents in the late 1960s, is now a program in schools across the state.

In the 1980s she began working with money from Alaska Sea Grant, a University of Alaska Fairbanks program that funds marine research and distributes information about Alaska's seas and coasts, in developing a Seaweek curriculum for the whole state.

"She was working on taking a Juneau vision and a Juneau curriculum to making it apply to other regions of the state," said Peggy Cowan, now Juneau's school district superintendent. Cowan worked with Mickelson in Fairbanks with the Sea Grant funds.

Mickelson was the primary author of five of the six curriculum guides for the program.

Mickelson also has benefited the state with her music. She started a bluegrass music camp in Cordova, where she lived from 1977 until last summer, and formed the band Barefoot Bluegrass with some of the camp's most talented students, including her son Mike, 19.

Barefoot Bluegrass has earned a national reputation, traveling in the summer throughout Alaska and the Lower 48 to perform concerts and stage bluegrass camps modeled after the one in Cordova. The band came to Juneau last summer and plans to return next summer, Mickelson said.

Seaweek, bluegrass camp and teaching are linked in Mickelson's life by a love of Alaska.

"People need to value the wild part of Alaska," she said.

"The main thing about (Mickelson) is ... she wanted to find what was meaningful for Alaska," said Cowan. "She translates the passion she has for Alaska and the Alaskan environment into instruction. And it doesn't matter if it's dance and music or marine science or even math. That's what's part of her magic."

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.



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