Future engineers test their skills at ANSEP
Kotzebue's Chase Nelson and Zaina McConnell are both 11 years old and in sixth grade and they both say they want to be engineers when they grow up.
Last month, they took a first step toward that goal at the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program's middle school academy, held at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
"I was really excited because I wanted to have a really good learning experience there," said Chase. "I wanted to learn engineering from the program."
He heard about ANSEP at school and brought home the application to his father, Darin.
"He brought it to our attention. I know what kind of student he is and I know what kind of kid he is," Darin said. "He was excited."
Chase, Zaina, and dozens of other kids from around the Northwest Arctic applied and were accepted. In October, all of the students spent nearly two weeks away from home in Anchorage learning all about science, technology, engineering, and math.
"He talked my ear off every phone call [home]," Darin said. "He has great stories from it."
Zaina decided to apply after hearing similar stories from her older sibling.
"My sister told me some stuff about it and it got me really excited about it like the computer build and all the things they did and how we get to see what it's like to be a college student," she said.
The computer build is one of the core activities of the program, explained Regional Director Audrey Alstrom.
"[It] has been a staple of our program. The students build the computer from scratch, they put in all the components, they load the software, and at the end, they have their own working computer that they're able to take home and use for education," Alstrom said. "Part of taking that computer home is the students have to sign a contract saying they are going to work their hardest to complete Algebra 1 before entering high school. The reason we do this is we want them to be accountable for their education."
Getting kids not only excited about learning but so that they feel ownership over their education is one of the tenets of ANSEP.
"Our overall goal is to affect systemic change in the hiring patterns of Alaska Native people in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] fields just by placing our students on a career path toward leadership," she said.
Alstrom, who is originally from Alakanuk, attended one of ANSEP's early college-level programs when she was in school years ago.
"When I was attending the University of Alaska Anchorage as a civil engineering student, I was a member of its university success component," she said. "I saw firsthand the uniqueness of ANSEP."
When her own daughter was in middle school, she learned the program had developed special academies for younger students. Her daughter attended one and came back raving.
"Just seeing the change that my daughter went through in how excited she was about the program and math and science and taking the harder level classes [was amazing]," Alstrom said. "Because then she could see why her teachers and I are pushing her to challenge herself all the time. So, she was excited and it made me excited."
Alstrom was so invested she got a job with ANSEP and now oversees its middle school academy.
"Now I get excited when I see the students come in and they're a little shy and unsure of themselves at the beginning of the academy but then when they leave after 12 days, they are excited about school and being a positive role model for other students when they go back to their home schools," she said.
The 12-day course is rigorous. Students stay in the UAA dorms and eat in the cafeteria. They walk to their classes which are held on campus to get a taste of college life.
Throughout the program, they have the chance to do hands-on projects from start to finish so they learn how to design, build, and test their ideas.
Some of this year's projects included building an Arctic wall to learn about insulation and construction science, building a windmill to learn about renewable energy, constructing an earthquake-safe tower and testing it on a shaking table to learn about building safety, and designing a lightweight balsa wood bridge to see what designs can hold the most weight.
"Ours held 51 pounds and it weighed only 95 grams," said Chase.
ANSEP partners with the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward for a marine biology component, as well. Students traveled down by bus and got a behind-the-scenes experience at the center.
"We spent the night in there," explained Chase. "It was hard to go to sleep because we were sleeping next to the sea lions. At night they were making lots of noises. They were making roaring noises and the birds were also squawking."
As part of the biology component, the students learned about anatomy and even did a dissection.
"We did a squid dissection and learned about cephalopods. It was fun," Chase said. "The most interesting part to me was the part that shoots out water to boost itself forward if they're trying to get away from predators. It's like sprinting. You can't do it for a very long time and you can't do it over a long period."
Both Zaina and Chase said they had a great time and the program lived up to expectations. They each independently made sure to note that ANSEP offers programs for older and more advanced students and they plan to work hard in school so they can attend those, too. After that, they both hope to attend college.
"Personally for me, because we live in such a small, rural place and there aren't a lot of things available for the kids, I thought it would be a good thing for them to try out new things, to meet new people, and to get out there," said Zaina's mom, Lucy McConnell. "I always encourage them to go after these kinds of opportunities. With the rural living it can be hard to go to college away from your home, so I thought [this program] away from home, away from parents, in a school setting would be really good for them."
She was glad Zaina showed an interest in it, too, and is excited about her love for engineering.
"I think science and math are really important and with her being a girl, I think it's really good for her to go after STEM fields because there aren't as many women represented," Lucy said. "Also, it seems like a lot of the jobs these days are very technical and around technology, so I thought it's a good place for her to be."
Along with gaining an understanding of the material, students are asked to work together and build up their communication and life skills.
"All the while, the students are practicing not only their teamwork skills but also their speaking skills so they get comfortable standing up and talking to people they're not used to talking to," explained Alstrom.
By learning about not only college but about the possibility of future careers in the STEM fields, Alstrom hopes the students who attend ANSEP will feel more motivated to be engaged in their communities in useful ways as they grow older.
"Some of the students, when they're going to school, they don't know the reason why they're taking a math and science class and so we try to show them the 'why' and get them excited and potentially see themselves in those fields in the future," she said. "[With that], our students out in the rural areas can be at the table when important decisions are being made about the resources that they have been relying on for 10,000 years. When someone is talking about mineral development or the environment, they can be helping make those decisions that are important to them."
More information can be found at ansep.net.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.