ANSEP expands achievements, focuses on rural education

Photos/Chris Arrand/University of Alaska

The University of Alaska’s acclaimed Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program known as ANSEP is embarked on an ambitious course that could remake rural Alaska education if it could be expanded.

“It’s clear now. ANSEP student performance at every level far exceeds state and national numbers,” says Prof. Herb Schroeder, ANSEP’s founder. “We have a good start in meeting our objective of creating enduring systemic change in the hiring patterns of Alaska Natives in the science and engineering professions,” because of a strengthened education system that begins in rural middle schools and high schools and extends to the university level.

There are now about 400 Alaska Native students in the university’s science and engineering programs, he said. In 1995, when ANSEP started, there was one. In 2012 the university graduated 32 students with degrees in science and engineering. The 2013 graduation count is not yet confirmed.

ANSEP’s success has attracted attention for several years from major organizations like the National Science Foundation, major corporations like Alaska oil producers BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil as well as Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.

The Pebble Partnership, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and NANA Regional Corp. are strong supporters, as are federal and state agencies that are supporting the students in the sciences.

ANSEP’s formula is not complicated, and Schroeder thinks it can be replicated in other fields of study and with all students, Native and non-Native. The university has a version of it underway in the health care field, in fact.

The strategy is to begin early, at the middle school level, to build interest and encourage young people to take science and math courses. This continues into high school, where ANSEP includes an incentive — a computer the student assembles and gets to keep if he or she takes and passes certain courses.

The goal is to set high expectations for students but also to provide support. At the university, for example, there is a big emphasis on peer-taught study groups, with older ANSEP students teaching younger ones so that the older Native students are seen as role models.

Staring early is crucial, however, and because there are limits to courses and instructional expertise in small rural schools, ANSEP has started a program to bring high school and more recently middle school students to the University of Alaska Anchorage campus for summer intensives. Students, who are supervised, live in the UAA dorms.

For high school graduates there is a “Summer Bridge” program, a more intense summer program of eight weeks, to prepare a student for entry into the university.

Students who have been in the summer high school “Acceleration Academies” begin Summer Bridge when they graduate and work internships with ANSEP partner organizations.

The program is reaching students in 95 communities, mostly small and in rural areas, and the preparation is paying off. More than 80 percent of the middle school students graduating from eighth grade who have been through ANSEP’s Middle School Academy have completed Algebra 1. Nationally, only 26 percent of students achieve this, Schroeder said.

“Our middle school students transition into the high school ANSEP Acceleration Academy and as a result we are rapidly increasing the number of ANSEP students fully prepared, before they leave high school, for science and engineering study programs at the university,” he said.

“We have freshmen who are arriving at the university ready for Calculus 3 and differential equations. In spring 2013, a student from Nome successfully completed advanced engineering math prior to high school graduation.”

That means the student will have completed all math needed for his engineering degree and can focus on other courses, he said.

The Middle School Academies are 12 days with the work focused mainly on project work that is mainly designed to stimulate interest and enthusiasm.

“The focus at each level is to provide excitement and empowerment around these careers,” Schroeder said.

The high school Acceleration Academies are longer, at five weeks, and involve class instruction that is taught by university faculty who are experts in their fields.

ANSEP Middle School Academy students earn the right to keep the computwers they build after successfully completing Algebra 1 prior to graduation from eighth grade. (Photo/Chris Arrand/University of Alaska)

The eight-week Summer Bridge that is available after high school graduation also involves paid internships where students work part-time alongside professionals in the fields they are studying. Companies like BP, ConocoPhillips and Alyeska Pipeline Co. typically hire a number of ANSEP summer interns in the engineering fields, as do government agencies like the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who typically have interns working in the field doing work related to biological sciences.

The fieldwork component of the science fields takes interns out of the Anchorage area for several weeks, which means when they return for the class component it is all-day academic work for several weeks. That’s a demanding schedule, Schroeder said.

ANSEP has been stepping up the number of summer middle school sessions. In 2013 there were three sessions of 54 students each. When middle school, high school and Summer Bridge programs are going simultaneously the ANSEP building on the UAA campus gets very crowded.

ANSEP is now looking at the possibility of having middle school sessions during the normal school year. However, residential facilities for students becomes an issue because the dormitory space available during summer is taken by UAA’s regular students.

The solution to this is additional space to accommodate students, a priority ANSEP is now working on.

 Being able to offer middle school program year-around would allow it to be substantially expanded.

“A 12-day session during the school year is something school districts should be able to work with in terms of schedule, and it might also allow teachers to accompany the students,” Schroeder said.

The plan is to gradually expand the middle school program in increments, with four 54-student academies in 2014, six in 2015, eight in 2016, 10 in 2017 and 12 in 2018.

“In 2020 the middle school component reaches a steady state where there will be an excess of 650 students graduating from eighth grade annually with ANSEP preparation, and with the current track record of 80 percent completing Algebra 1,” Schroeder said.

That is about 500 students per year achieving the algebra benchmark before starting high school.

The plan for an ANSEP Academy Building is to allow the middle school programs to be operated year-round. It would be a 40,000-square-foot space with beds for 125 students and staff, and space for 10,000 square feet for “hands-on” science and engineering, Schroeder said.

Schroeder is passionate about what ANSEP is doing and he sees it as one solution to a serious challenge in keeping the nation competitive in science and engineering fields.

This has big implications for the economy, because organizations are failing to find the qualified employees they need.

“College students are not graduating in number sufficient to meet the demand in science and engineering,” Schroeder said.

As for Alaska’s rural education, “the system is failing,” Schroeder said.

“We are in the midst of an education crisis. Nearly 40 percent of Alaska Native students do not finish high school on time. Only 4 percent of minority students nation-wide come to college prepared for science and engineering,” he said.

The problem isn’t the young people.

“K-12 students are eager and bright but are often denied the inspiration, guidance and opportunities that leads to success.

“People have been working to solve this problem for 50 years with little improvement. We are convinced there is enough money in the (education) system to accomplish our goals for many, many more students. But the money in the system is not always spent in a manner that leads to success.

“We are paying for failure,” Schroeder said. “ANSEP reaches only 3 percent of our K-12 Native students in Alaska. Ninety-seven percent of our students are still unable to participate,” he said.


Tim Bradner can be reached at [email protected].



10/17/2013 - 12:58pm