Conference report: Marine science is more than science

Posted: Sunday, July 14, 2002

Aquatic and marine educators from the Pacific Northwest, meeting in Juneau this weekend, learned there's more to their subject than science. It's art, math, geography and culture, participants said.

"When teachers are using the salmon lifecycle in their classes, everyone thinks science," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service educator Laurel Devaney told some conference participants Friday at Centennial Hall.

"I've found there are few intuitive leaps that this is a great math activity, this is a great geography activity," said Devaney, who works with schoolchildren in Fairbanks.

Soon Devaney was walking her class of educators through a drawing of a pyramid that showed the natural survival of salmon from the egg stage to adults that spawn. A mid-size female silver salmon might carry 2,000 eggs, but only three of them are likely to live to spawn.

"Does anyone feel like cutting out 2,000 eggs? I doubt it," she said. "So the first thing we can do is to make these eggs a symbol."

Students, working their way through the pyramid, would learn not only about salmon biology and the predators that rely on them for food, but how to use symbols and calculate percentages.

Students also can mix a geography lesson with one about fisheries management and social issues by standing in a line and representing villages along the 2,000-mile Yukon River.

As students pass along a cup of beans, representing the run of fish returning to the river from the ocean, they take out some beans as their "harvest."

"It's surprisingly not clear to kids, and even some adults, that when we go fishing along a river, we're all sharing the same stock," Devaney said. "Typically what happens when you have a line of 10 kids, this cup runs out pretty quickly and kids up the line say, 'Look what you did.' "

About 30 educators assembled Friday through today for the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators 2002 Regional Conference, said Karen Clarkson, a Fairbanks teacher of gifted elementary students who is Alaska director of NAME.

The participants were from Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Alaska, and California. The conference included museum curators and research scientists, as well as teachers.

Keynote speakers included Henry Huntington of the Arctic Consortium of the United States on using Western and Native knowledge, federal biologist Ron Heintz on the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and Kesler Woodward, artist for the 2001 Harriman Expedition along the Alaska coast.

"What's really cool is being with the research people," Clarkson said. "That direct contact. If my students want to know something, I have the contacts."

The conference also gives scientists, who often are asked to talk to schoolchildren, a chance to meet teachers.

"It gives both of us the opportunity to broaden our horizons and learn some flexibility skills," Clarkson said.

Debby Hansen, an art teacher in the Juneau schools, showed participants how to do a watercolor project called Textures of the Intertidal. Hansen, who brought a table full of shells and starfish as models, said she used to teach high school chemistry and biology.

"I think it's really important for people to appreciate all the variability there is in nature," she said. "As an artist, it really forces you to observe things in nature. ... This is really a good way to get kids turned on to science."

Participants in another session discussed the difficulties of incorporating traditional Native knowledge in science classrooms.

Andy Hope of Juneau, Southeast coordinator for the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, spoke about the curriculum called I Am Salmon, which is used around the Pacific Rim to incorporate local knowledge. He called it place-based education, and said it was a way to interest Native children in their schooling.

"For me, it's teaching from place," Hope said. "Having the kids learn from the place where they're living and go out from there. For Native children, it's giving them something that hasn't been there.

"For me, it's teaching them about traditional knowledge so they have something to connect to and feel better about themselves. I'm not so sure that the non-Native kids in the Juneau School District connect to anything, either."

Ishmael Hope, an actor and writer who graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School two years ago, said schools usually focus on information, specialization and achievement.

"Place-based really strikes me as a way of self-knowledge," he said. "You find whatever your field is, instead of having that be the first thing."

But educators spoke of the obstacles non-Native teachers face in using traditional Native knowledge in their classes.

Esther Ilutsik, of the Ciulistet Research Association, a Western Alaska group of teachers and elders, has written about the concerns even Native teachers have about bringing oral knowledge - which was considered sacred and passed down as needed and practiced without question - into the categories and teaching methods of the Western curriculum.

In an interview, Penny Rose, who is an educator and naturalist at Discovery Park in Seattle, said the staff at the public park don't teach Native lore and ethnobiology because Natives resented it and said the staff wasn't qualified.

"There has been a lot of pressure on white folks to not report the Native culture at all and not to use that in their teaching because it isn't their own," Rose said. "It's really unfortunate because it's such a richness."

Andy Hope said he would err on the side of access to Native knowledge, much of which has been in the public domain for years.

"I think the main reasons our kids have been having problems is they haven't had a sense of this kind of knowledge," Hope said. "To try to restrict it is unforgivable."

Eric Fry can be reached at

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