Middle schoolers Lynzey Culver and Chelsea Brown emerged from the waters of Bridget Cove with more than a dozen different marine species in their seine. There was a buzz of excitement amidst the buzzing of nearby horseflies, as fellow students waiting at the shore excitedly transferred the sea life into buckets for closer examination.
It was week one of the TAKU Marine Science Summer Camp, and the kids were learning about sea life hands-on. The camp, which packed a semester of learning into a two-week excursion, wrapped up Thursday night with final group presentations at Thunder Mountain High School.
TAKU, an acronym for tradition, accountability, knowledge and understanding, merges marine science with traditional native knowledge to educate high school-aged students. Incoming freshmen can earn a half credit in school by completing the program.
"Learning about sea life and the environment hands-on is great. I've never experienced anything like this before," said Brown, one of the program's 30 participants. "It's better than the classroom because here we remember everything."
Returning camp director Alberta Jones created the program with the help of National Oceanic Atmospheric Association fisheries lab, state Fish & Game, the University of Alaska Southeast and local Alaska Natives. The camp was free to the students, who had to apply. This was the final year of funding for the program, but Jones is hopeful it will continue.
Students practiced field research techniques at local beaches, and then were required to record, analyze and interpret their findings. Among assignments were gathering various types of bivalves to check for paralytic shellfish and red tide poisoning, ocean acidification experiments, animal dissection and beach seining. Participants also toured the new NOAA facility and took a trip on a research vessel.
Students weren't let completely off the hook from traditional learning methods. Each kept a journal, used to answer that day's question. Example: "What is the ecological and cultural significance of eelgrass and seaweed?"
"We give a different essential question every day because it gives them a writing prompt and they have to think hard about it," said Juneau-Douglas High School Special Education teacher Gene Randall. Randall said they picked Bridget cove because of the eelgrass beds, which act as a protective nursery for juvenile marine life, such as Dungeness crab.
"We try to make a real personal connection," said Randall who has mentored all three years of the program. The ratio of students to mentors this year was 4-1.
Camper Ryan Hicks for one appreciated the personal attention.
"They want to connect with us - bond with us - and they let us do activities instead of watching. I used to step on muscles on the beach and pop seaweed, but now I realize they are animals," Hicks said.
First year camper Tyler Meyer found a way to put his video gaming skills to use while aboard the research vessel Stellar. Meyer and two other students guided a camera-laden, four-foot long remote operating vehicle through the water to observe the sea life below. The students watched from a monitor as the ROV cruised along at depths ranging from 20- to 100-feet deep, revealing sea pens, sea whips, crabs and bottom-feeding fish (and the occasional coral reef that needed to be negotiated).
"Operating the ROV was more fun than video games, and I'm learning about what's under the water," Meyer said.
Rhyan Holmes found the seal dissection interesting, and was a bit surprised by what she found: seaweed.
"It was kind of odd because seals don't usually eat seaweed, they eat fish," Holmes said, also pointing out the seal's cultural significance. "First they told us why the seals are so important to the Tlingit's and how they use all the different parts of the seal; they even make jewelry out of the bones."
High School teacher Jonathon Smith considers this year's camp a success.
"I think (the) camp went really well. You can see as the students present their final projects, they are really into it and they are having conversations at amazing levels with scientists," he said. "I had one parent tell me their child learned more in this camp then they did in an entire year. The thing I see as a high school teacher, is these kids come into the school with a greater sense of confidence, which is really important for retention."