Slope students participate in hands-on geology lessons
Next summer, 24 students from the North Slope will travel to the Pacific Northwest through the GeoFORCE Alaska program.
The students will spend a week visiting Mt. Hood, Crater Lake, Newberry National Monument and other sites, while learning about geology in the region.
The participants were recruited from communities in the North Slope Borough including Barrow, Wainwright and Point Hope.
Program Coordinator Anne Rittgers said GeoFORCE, which is modeled on a program at the University of Texas at Austin, is about bringing textbook geology to life.
Rittgers said that by showing students spectacular geological features, letting them touch the rocks and hike around them, the program hopes to foster students’ interest in geology, and science in general.
“We focus on geology and geosciences, but students are really learning how to think like a scientist,” Rittgers said.
The Pacific Northwest trip will be the third of four trips the students take together. Previously, they traveled around Alaska, and visited the Grand Canyon.
Each trip is about seven days in the field, and about 10 or 11 days away from home once travel time is factored in.
Students have 100-page guidebooks, provided by GeoFORCE, filled with information about the geology they’re studying, Rittgers said.
The students spend most of their day on the go and learning. Lunch is often just a stop in the park; they visit field sites during the day, and keep driving until dinner. Every day, there is a lecture, time for review, and a quiz.
“It’s a pretty intense day, but the students rise to the challenge,” Rittgers said.
Shell geologist Josh Payne, who has traveled with the Alaska cohort on the two trips so far, said he’s enjoyed seeing the students grow and learn as they travel together.
“A couple days into it they start pointing to things and explaining it to their friends, and that itself is really cool to see happening in 48 hours,” Payne said.
Payne has gone along on the trips as one of the mentors the sponsoring organizations send. Rittgers said two or three such individuals travel with the group.
“For these kids to see their own state and then to step out and see some of the great geological wonders of the world is amazing,” Payne said. “They have a blast. It’s intense and it’s hard, it’s really hard work, they study a lot, but it’s fun.”
GeoFORCE Director Sarah Fowell, who has been an instructor on the trips, said she’s seen the same growth as Payne.
“We are so proud of our students,” Fowell said.
Each year, the students take a pre- and post-test to measure what they learn. The average pre-test scores have been in the 40s; the average post-test scores have been in the 80s, showing that students are learning the material, Fowell said.
To remain in the program, the students must earn at least an 80 percent on the final exam, and get at least a B average in their high school science and math courses during the year. Every participant has meet those standards, she said.
There’s also personal growth as the students meet new people and see new places.
“I think it’s a big confidence booster to find out that you can work with people you haven’t met before and it’s OK, you can find solutions,” Fowell said.
When conversations about starting the program began in 2011, personal and educational growth were exactly what the founders were hoping would happen.
Fowell, who is co-chair of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Department of Geology & Geophysics, said the program helps serve the university’s mission of providing access to education for all Alaskans.
Previously, UAF’s College of Natural Science and Mathematics, or CNSM, had noticed that rural and Alaska Native students were underrepresented in the sciences, especially chemistry, physics and geosciences. The program tries to help develop students’ interest in those fields, Fowell said.
Geology has a particular relevance. Many of the participants are shareholders of Native corporations on the North Slope that are part of the oil and gas industry there. Those companies, like Arctic Slope Regional Corp., would like to hire more shareholders to help make balanced decisions about development of natural and cultural resources, Fowell said.
The program was originally developed in Texas as a partnership between the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences and private companies. The Texas participants are from inner city Houston and rural Southwest Texas.
The program came to Alaska through a partnership between private companies, the Jackson School, and UAF. CNSM hosts and supports the program, while private companies foot most of the bill.
Rittgers said the Texas model was very successful, so the Alaska program is similar, with a few modifications to meet the needs of Alaskan students.
In Texas, the graduation rate at the schools students come from is as low as 60 percent, Rittgers said.
But 100 percent of the Texas GeoFORCE participants have graduated from high school, and 98 percent have gone on to college, Rittgers said. About two-thirds study STEM fields in college.
That success is what drove executives at Great Bear and Shell to begin discussions about bringing the program to Alaska, Rittgers said.
The North Slope Borough School District, where participants go to school, has a similar graduation rate to the Texas counterpart. In 2010, about 62 percent of students earned a high school degree.
Ultimately, the partners hope the students are inspired to pursue further education in science, engineering, technology and mathematics, or STEM, fields.
“We want to give them a taste of what college science courses might include,” Fowell said.
The first Alaska trip was in 2012, and 16 students who had just finished eighth grade participated. The next summer, eight more students joined the cohort. This year the program will likely hold steady at 24 participants, who just finished 10th grade.
Several adults, including representatives from the sponsoring companies, a geology instructor, a high school science teacher, and college-aged counselors also travel with the students.
The first trip took students around the road system in Alaska — they visited Denali, hiked on the Matanuska Glacier, studied coal in Healy, and explored the Fox permafrost tunnel.
The second summer, 2013, they went to the Grand Canyon, and got to spend some time with the Texas participants who were there at the same time.
The Grand Canyon was Payne’s favorite site so far.
“I’d been there a few times, and it’s awesome every time you see it, but to see the awe when they see it is pretty cool,” Payne said.
This summer, they’ll fly in and out of Portland, Ore., and see much of the northwest. Payne hopes to attend, depending on scheduling.
For their final trip, in 2015, the students will go to the east coast to study the structural geology of the Appalachian Mountains. The program likely won’t end when students go their separate ways at the end of the final trip.
GeoFORCE is also about developing community amongst the participants and in Texas, Rittgers said those connections have continued when the students went on to college.
Fowell said the Alaska program is also trying to foster those connections. So far, they’re seeing students connect with one another during the school year, and get excited about the next summer’s adventure, she said. When the current cohort is applying to college, GeoFORCE will provide some help navigating the admissions and financial aid processes, she said.
Rittgers is also working on finding funding for a second Alaska cohort. Ideally, that will include 40 eighth and ninth grade students who will take their first trip — around Alaska — in 2014.
GeoFORCE covers the full cost of the trip, including airfare, lodging and food, and Rittgers said she’s still looking for sponsors to make a second cohort possible.
The 2013 sponsors were Arctic Slope Regional Corp., ASRC Energy Services, ExxonMobil, Great Bear Petroleum, GRANITE Construction, Olgoonik, Schlumberger, Shell, SolstenXP and Statoil.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.