Finding creative ways to engage students in education is always a challenge. But a team of teachers and scientists in Juneau, Alaska may have found a unique way to bring the real world into classrooms, helping students see how their studies can prepare them for successful careers when they finish school.
“We started the SouthEast Exchange (S.E.E.) to connect STEM professionals (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) with pre-K – 12 educators,” said Elizabeth “Ebett” Siddon, NOAA Fisheries scientist and one of the founding partners of S.E.E. “By engaging scientists, engineers, photographers, artists and members of the Native community, we hope to expose students to a variety of perspectives and knowledge that can help to enrich their learning experience.”
The effort kicked off in October 2017, when a group of community members and teachers collaborated with the Juneau STEM Coalition and the Juneau Economic Development Council to organize their first networking event. Over 150 people showed up. Many of these professionals agreed to be part of a formal network that teachers could turn to for speakers to augment their lesson plans.
“The network was an invaluable resource for bringing real-life examples into my ecosystem educational unit reaching 107 students,” said Jessica Cobley 7th grade teacher at Floyd Dryden Middle School and another founding member of S.E.E.
Cobley’s students were studying the Bering Sea Ecosystem — oceanography, zooplankton, pollock, seabirds, fur seals, and humans. Each student was assigned a component of the ecosystem to research, looking at how these components are connected and interact. Scientists from the University of Alaska and NOAA Fisheries gave guest lectures throughout the month-long unit.
According to Cobley the highlight of the unit was having students participate in a mock fishery management meeting. Students presented information to a panel of professionals, which included actual federal and state resource managers and the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association. They learned about ecosystem-based fishery management, making a case for how much Walleye pollock should be commercially fished in the Bering Sea in 2019 from the perspective of the various components of the ecosystem studied. For instance, pollock is a prey item for fur seals. A fur seal would want to ensure that fishing quotas were set at levels that ensured enough pollock were left in the ecosystem for fur seals.
“In 7th grade students are starting to think about what they want to be when they finish school,” said Cobley. “This is a great learning experience for them. It gives them a chance to see first-hand how science and various points of view inform real world decisions.”
Another NOAA Fisheries scientist and founding member of S.E.E. is Jordan Watson. He said he got involved for many of the same reasons that Ebett and Jessica did. “We have a lot of expertise here in such a small town but it can be difficult to connect those resources. It’s great that we have been able to find a way to bring all those resources to teachers. We put professionals and teachers in a room together and have created an online platform to continue that connection.”
The S.E.E. team see this as just the beginning. They are exploring other opportunities for expanding this effort to other classrooms in Juneau and communities throughout Alaska.