Summer school heads outdoors

Science camp focuses on marine, Native knowledge

Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2007

It's not your typical summer school - long days on a wild beach scrounging through tide pools, nights at camp, fireside storytelling, running a biological GPS transect, cataloging a "bio-band," recording whale songs, identifying genus and species.

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A group of incoming high school freshmen under the tutelage of teachers and older students are in the middle of a new summer camp focused on the teaching of modern marine sciences in combination with traditional Native knowledge.

With a Native studies grant, The Aukw Noow Marine Science Camp takes a new approach to the educational mantra of "rigor, relevance, and relationships" by working a group of 34 students.

Many are so-called "at risk" students, working through a semester of high school science in two weeks.

By all accounts, it's working for them.

"If science class were more like this, I'd probably go for it," said John Jones, an incoming freshman at Juneau-Douglas High School.

Every student in the camp applied to be there, and by the end of camp, all who complete the course would be one class closer to graduation before they even enter high school.

These studies may be harder than high school work. The students dissected clams harvested from beaches, then took the work one step farther by looking for evidence of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning in three species of bivalves found at Eagle Beach.

They found PSP in blue mussels.

Teachers around camp said many of the traditional facets of education were different at Adlersheim Wilderness Lodge, at Mile 33 on Glacier Highway. Up at 6 a.m., with 14 hours of "class time" each day, students couldn't avoid immersion into the subject.

"We can keep a kid engaged," said Bill Ralston, a JDHS teacher with 18 years experience. He called the science camp one of his best times in the district. "It's a fantastic experience."

Jones' usual stance on science is to take only what's he is forced to.

At Adlersheim he favored the beach work, while cataloging the various species as part of a biological survey the group plans to publish. His personal favorite was the sculpin he found in the tide pools.

With hands-on work using GPS systems, the students did a complete transect of the beach near the lodge, cataloging 50 species living in different "bio-bands."

"This allows them to learn about the place they live," Alberta Jones said. "Who we are and where we come from."

Jones is a Native education grant writer for the Juneau School District. She brought the camp to the district with the help of many partners in the educational and scientific community.

"It's important. They live on the water, and this allows them to learn about the place they live," Jones said. The idea is to hook kids into education.

Fisher Stevens, another incoming freshman, was the first student to apply for the camp.

"I decided to be quick this time, so I had a better chance," Stevens said. He has been on standby for several other education-based camps.

Stevens said science in the field was more interesting than working within the confines of JDHS, and most of his colleagues agreed.

"Science is better this way, because we get to go out in it," he said.

Last Friday the students spent much of the day looking for signs of PSP in butter clams, cockles and blue mussels.

Answering a call for more diversity in the educational setting, the class is made up of thirds: one-third Native Alaskan, one-third Caucasian and one-third Pacific Islander.

They include advanced learners as well as kids less "able" in the traditional sense. Outside classroom perceptions, they found roles suited to their individual skills.

"That doesn't always happen in high school," said Jonathan Smith, a science teacher know for getting through to students.

"It's hard to do in a classroom setting," he said.

As the school district prepares to expand on the idea that one good relationship can keep a kid in school, the camp is chance for Alaska Native students to build relationships with a teacher at JDHS in a low student-teacher ratio.

"When they get there next fall they will have at least one teacher they know that they can ask questions," Ralston said.

The two-week program doubled as professional development time for the high school staff. They're getting experience with team teaching, Jones said. There are not many field trips at JDHS. Smith said the program was only his second chance to work in a team teaching environment.

• Greg Skinner can be reached at 523-2258 or

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