From Alaskan permafrost to sea level rise at Spencer Beach: WMS and Alaskans pilot STEM lessons together as global citizens

  • Waimea Middle School students Alema AhLoy, Avary Arrayan, Malia Camero, Kaile Dills, Benito Mercia, Jaslyn Miura, Nya Schara and Violet Stevenson check out the World International Ice Sculpture Competition while in Alaska last month as part of the spring break exchange trip. (COURTESY PHOTO/WMS)
    Waimea Middle School students Alema AhLoy, Avary Arrayan, Malia Camero, Kaile Dills, Benito Mercia, Jaslyn Miura, Nya Schara and Violet Stevenson check out the World International Ice Sculpture Competition while in Alaska last month as part of the spring break exchange trip. (COURTESY PHOTO/WMS)
  • The students visit Pioneer Park to learn about gold mining and the railroad during the March trip. (COURTESY PHOTO/WMS)
    The students visit Pioneer Park to learn about gold mining and the railroad during the March trip. (COURTESY PHOTO/WMS)

WAIMEA — What do Alaskan permafrost melt and sea level rise inundating Spencer Beach Park have in common?

While they occur in entirely different climactic zones and impact very different communities, they are scientifically founded facts facing current and future generations.

And, they are the kind of “real world” topics that grab attention and can engage students in science, technology, engineering and math, while building a greater cultural understanding of the world they will soon inherit.

These topics have been a part of a three-year journey of learning for two Waimea Middle School teachers and their seventh and eighth-grade students.

It began in 2014 when WMS science teachers Jade Bowman and Nau’i Murphy applied to join a team of Hawaii Island teachers in a National Science Foundation partnership with Alaska Pacific University and indigenous Yupik middle school students in Alaska.

The NSF grant, called PREPARES, stands for preparing responsive educators using place-based authentic research in earth systems. Hawaii and Alaska teachers, working in communities with large populations of indigenous middle school students, collaborated with Dr. Kathy Bertram and her team at Alaska Pacific University. Their goal was to pilot culturally relevant, rigorous STEM lessons that connect indigenous knowledge and learning styles with best-practice teaching strategies and America’s new Next Generation Science Standards.

The grant was designed to grow a cohort of science teachers experienced with creating and implementing hands-on climate science lessons that could introduce middle school students to the skills and knowledge needed for STEM careers. The lessons also engage students in the world around them, help them recognize and understand culturally relevant practices and technology, research possible solutions, pursue STEM careers and do their part as thoughtful community contributors.

Murphy and Bowman helped develop four units with dozens of hands-on lessons related to coral reefs, water, coastal erosion and solutions to climate change for the grant. WMS students and their Yupik counterparts in Alaska helped test these lessons.

As an example, WMS seventh and eighth-grade students researched data from scientific models of sea level rise caused by glacier melt, and then went to Spencer Beach and mapped out where the coastline would be over the next 100 years.

“It was shocking to them,” said Bowman. “They realized that the beach and park would be completely inundated by about 2060. Melting permafrost in Alaska would significantly impact our students and their families.”

She continued, “Heightening the impact of the experiment was a big controversy in Maui at that time where people were debating the construction of a sea wall at a popular surf spot to slow shoreline erosion. Our students studied various strategies to protect the Maui beach — sandbags, a wall and possibly rebuilding the beach as was done at Ala Moana in Honolulu. Then they went to Spencer Beach and plotted out sea level rise and saw that the beach would be entirely covered with water. They realized it didn’t matter what was done on Maui. Their beach would also be gone. Quite instantly, our students became ‘citizen scientists’ — extremely aware of the challenges ahead and committed to trying to do something about it.”

Murphy added, “That’s the goal — to introduce them to real-world issues and then challenge them to help find solutions.”

As the culminating event for PREPARES, eight WMS students participated in an exchange, traveling with their teachers to Alaska March 22-27 during spring break. They included Alema AhLoy, Avary Arrayan, Malia Camero, Kaile Dills, Benito Mercia, Jaslyn Miura, Nya Schara and Violet Stevenson.

During the trip, they applied STEM skills and strategies to continue their journey in becoming active citizens of the world. Among the subjects Hawaii students studied that are unique to Alaska were permafrost melt — caused by the warming of the Earth — which is, in turn, causing land masses in Alaska to sink or change shape. Permafrost melt, which is damaging buildings and infrastructure such as roads, airports, water and sewer pipes, is forcing relocation of entire native villages. The students saw this firsthand.

Reflecting on their PREPARES lessons and trip, the students acknowledged they have learned more about the world around them and are more aware of the need, for example, to conserve water and fossil fuels, and why these issues are relevant to their lives.

Curriculum developed during the three-year grant will be published next year by the NSF and made available to all interested schools.

For WMS, which will launch a new era of teaching and learning with the opening of its new nine-classroom $16 million STEAM building this fall, this approach to curriculum and teaching couldn’t be more timely. Murphy and Bowman are part of a team of WMS teachers planning STEAM lessons that will integrate core curriculum — math, science, language arts and social studies — with a strong cultural lens for WMS students.

While NSF grant funding covered all air and ground travel, food and housing for students and teachers, funding for miscellaneous travel expenses was donated by Kosch-Westerman Foundation to support Waimea Middle School’s educational journey.

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