Learning at Camp W.A.T.E.R.

Program ties Western math, science together with Native culture for middle-schoolers

Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2005

Some students at Floyd Dryden Middle School are building a one-man canoe in a school district program that ties together math, science and Native culture.

The canoe-builders are just one part of the Camp W.A.T.E.R. and Tides program, which served about 250 middle school students this year, program coordinator Alberta Jones said.

"W.A.T.E.R." stands for wilderness, adventure, tradition, exploration and research. For three weeks in June, 36 students will learn about the scientific method, tent building and canoeing, and listen to Native elders. They will take a five- or six-day canoe trip in Mitchell Bay near Angoon.

The district has offered the summer camp for several years. But this is the second year of a $1.3 million, three-year federal grant that extended the concept into the school year.

Middle school students, many of them Native, can receive tutoring and participate in science-wilderness-and-adventure clubs. Each school has a liaison with their parents, as well.

"We're trying to target kids that aren't being serviced already, with an emphasis on math, science, literacy and culture," Jones said. The program combines Native ways of knowing with Western science, she said.

A fluctuating number of Dryden students has been working for two months to make a wooden canoe under the guidance of school staff and retired biologist Fritz Funk, said Jeff Jemison, the Dryden home-to-school liaison.

"We're trying to keep kids engaged in school so they have positive choices." Jemison said.

On a recent Wednesday after school, he and science teacher Shawn Knoedler worked, talked, and joked with students, who struggled to find a comfortable position to scrape and sand the canoe, which was rested on a table.

Taylor Smith, a seventh-grader, said he joined the project "because I like building things."

"First we started out with the science, and that took awhile," he said.

The students had to measure the pieces correctly and then sand them, "make them look nice and neat, and that took a long time, too," Taylor said. "And then we had to bend them."

"These guys measured all these angles and cut all the angles," Knoedler said. "It was a little bit of trial-and-error exercise, but it came together."

The canoe's sides are glued and nailed to its bottom. The students cut the pieces out with hand saws. Eventually they will paint the craft with Native designs.

"I didn't know you had to be so precise," Taylor said of lessons learned. "I didn't know how to build a boat. I never tried. I don't even know how to paddle them."

The adventure clubs appeal to students who may not want to play sports, Knoedler said.

Taylor, who moved from Bothell, Wash., said, "They didn't have any cool clubs like this. They just had sports."

That Wednesday, Jemison showed the students how to plane the edge of the canoe's flat bottom so it aligned smoothly with the sides. He also had them chiseling off lumps of glue.

"Then we're going to hit it with sandpaper when we're done," he told the five boys present.

"Remember, guys, it's important that we don't dig into the wood. Which way is the grain going? Horizontal," Jemison said.

Knoedler said the students have been experimenting with models and water tanks to learn about buoyancy and the density of wood.

"This is great for this group of kids. We'll have kids stay to 7, 8 o'clock after school," he said.

Several students worked with a chalk-impregnated line of string to mark a straight line on a piece of wood. Seventh-grader Kawee Jarach volunteered to cut it.

"Let me show you something for a second," Jemison told him. "What position is the strongest? You want to get in position for any tool."

After some tentative strokes in the quivering wood while other kids held it down over a table edge, Taylor asked, "How can we make this easier?"

They decided to hold the piece of wood vertically in clamps so Kawee could cut straight down, with more force.

"I love to make a ship," Kawee said. "A boat is interesting. We have to use math and science and technology. It's cool, and we can learn how to make it float. We can make any cool design."

The students tired after an hour, and Jemison threatened to feed them rice cakes as a snack. But he caved in and came back with raisins, popcorn and corn dogs.

Meanwhile, 13 Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School students, in their science-wilderness-and-adventure club, spent that Wednesday after school at the Rock Dump climbing walls.

"We wanted to get something that pulls the kids in," said science teacher Topaz Shryock.

Teachers previously had related a lesson on pulleys to the act of belaying, in which a person is lowered by rope, a basic technique rock climbing. And they tied it into how people would use the pulley concept, with a rope and tree branch, if they lived off the land, she said.

The club meets two times a week in the spring. It gives teachers a chance to be with kids when the pressure is off, science teacher Steve Morley said. Sometimes no one shows up. Sometimes 16 do, he said.

"Whoever shows up, we have fun with," Morley said. "We try to keep it varied so kids have something to do all the time, and relate it back to science and (Native) culture.

"Rock climbing is a little bit of a stretch for the culture, but we're relating it to the archeological sites (in Southeast Alaska,)" Morley said.

The students were prepared to climb and had the protocol down pat.

"On belay," sixth-grader Lasacha Friedrichs told Morley, who held onto her climbing rope.

"Belay is on," Morley said.

"Climbing?," she said.

"Climb on," he replied.

Lasacha said afterward that the wall looks a lot higher when you're up it.

She joined the club, she said, because "it sounded interesting, like making fires and rock climbing."

Sixth-grader Desirae Harris had climbed before.

"I kind of get higher and higher," she said. "If there's walls you haven't been able to climb before and you achieve and get to the top of them, then you'd be excited - if you're not scared of heights."

Eighth-grader Mark Bautista, who said he was afraid of heights, nonetheless rappelled from a platform about 20 feet off the ground. He had to step backward into the air as an adult held the rope that connected him to a pulley.

"I just wanted to see if I can do it," Mark said afterward.

He joined the club because "science has been a favorite interest of mine," Mark said. "I plan to do something in that in the future. Also, I don't have anything to do after school."

Next year, program director Jones said, she hopes to hold Native-oriented middle school science fairs in the fall and spring.

The latter would coincide with Celebration, which draws Natives from around Southeast to Juneau every two years.

Usually, children's dance groups perform at Celebration. The science fair would show students' math and science skills, and the children could serve as role models, Jones said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.

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