ANSEP Middle School Academy Career Exploration Program connects more than future scientists

We sat huddled around my cell phone watching a YouTube video along a lake near the University of Alaska campus in Anchorage. As a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Alaska Education Specialist, it was a new scene for me.  

“There’s my auntie, that’s my mom doing the loon call, isn’t she amazing? Oh! There you are, Jackie!...” the girls gushed over the video of their relatives and each other performing traditional dances at a competition in Juneau. The tight-knit group of sisters and cousins huddled around my phone had traveled more than a thousand miles—from Atka, an island in the Aleutians—to attend the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program’s (ANSEP) Summer Career Exploration program, a week-long STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) camp in Anchorage, Alaska. They left their families and communities to learn more about careers with the BLM and meet other students who may become their college classmates in the future.  
ANSEP readies Alaska Native youth across a wide age range—from fifth grade through college—and from rural Alaska for careers in STEM.  This year, BLM Alaska partnered with ANSEP to host a week-long program for students to explore natural resource and conservation careers.  
To kick off the week, students thought critically about what they were taught throughout their lives about scientists, and met Casey Burns, the BLM Alaska wildlife and threatened and endangered species lead. Burns shared an overview of the BLM and the wildlife programs and projects he manages. He also gave examples of how he uses teamwork and collaboration in his work. As the week went on, students worked on teamwork challenges to improve their communication, problem solving, and conflict resolution skills – all valuable assets for future STEM professionals. The students also explored different scientific themes. Their week took them around Anchorage as they weaved science, art, and engineering projects together while they learned more about the forests, watersheds, and animals of Alaska. They collected data, participated in engineering challenges, and discovered how conservation professionals help manage these critical resources.  

Perhaps more important than what the students learned or the data they collected, is the community they built and the stories and knowledge they shared throughout the week. As they explored the animals, plants, and rivers around the UAA campus and Anchorage area, they told stories about hunting and fishing in their villages, they danced and sang, and shared their cultures with each other and with BLM staff. Together, we learned that science is more than data and degrees, and that the traditional and ecological knowledge they hold about their communities and the land is as valid as anything they learn from a textbook and essential to co-stewardship on public lands.  

School students huddle around a tray filled with water, sand, and pebbles looking for aquatic insects during a watershed study. BLM photo, A. Runde
ANSEP Middle School students huddle around a tray filled with water, sand, and pebbles looking for aquatic insects during a watershed study. BLM photo, A. Runde

As we walked out on the last day, my coworker, BLM Alaska Campbell Creek Science Center Interpretive Ranger Daniella Barraza, and I lamented about how we would miss them, and we did. It’s easy to look at middle school students today and wonder how invested they will be in the health, diversity and productivity of our public lands, but a few hours with ANSEP middle schoolers can quickly restore your faith in the next generation. I know it did for us, we both left the week hopeful and inspired by the students, their enthusiasm, and their approach to life, rooted in culture and tradition, but ready to face the challenges of tomorrow.  

Annie Runde, Education Specialist

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