NSF Science & Engineering Messengers

Archive for July 2013

Generation Innovation: Priming the Science Education Pipeline in Alaska

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This is a sample blog post composed at the July 17-18 “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Alaska is a beautiful, visually stunning state. It overwhelms you with wildlife and awe-inspiring sites like Denali. Visitors are ecstatic to have come here, and a few ultimately stay–but when they do, they may soon realize that Alaska is far from perfect. In particular, we’re lagging badly in an area that’s key to a brighter future for the state: training science graduates to fill well-paying jobs in hi-tech and science-based fields, ranging from the petroleum industry to biomedicine.

It’s a stunning statistic: Here in Alaska, we give out fewer bachelor’s degrees in the natural sciences and engineering than any other U.S. state on a per capita basis–just 3.9 degrees for every 1,000 students aged 18-24. Indeed, as of 2010, only 46 percent of Alaska high school graduates went to college at all. That makes Alaska 50th in the nation on this measure, out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.

During the EPSCoR-sponsored "Micro to Macro" STEM Education event at UAA, students from the Anchorage School District visit the Applied Science, Engineering and Technology Lab to learn about chemistry, microbiology and physiology" Photographer: Holly McQuinn

Students from the Anchorage School District visit the Applied Science, Engineering and Technology Lab in an EPSCoR sponsored STEM event. Credit: Holly McQuinn

This is a massive problem for our future, because science jobs—in various fields from the life sciences to physical sciences—are expected to grow dramatically in the coming years. By 2018, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development forecasts an 11 percent increase in these positions over 2008 levels. Not only are job opportunities forecast to expand, but the current STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce in Alaska is aging—41 percent of workers in these high-paying fields were between ages 45 and 64, as of the year 2008. At present, given the state of the science education pipeline in Alaska right now, you have to wonder whether all of those promising, high-paying jobs can be filled. So what can we do about it?

That’s where the Alaska Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), supported by the National Science Foundation, comes in. Our latest 5 year, $ 20 million grant focuses on preparing Alaska communities for environmental change; but at the same time, its education component is focused on igniting science passion in K-12 students, often by getting them directly involved in research itself. What’s more, the programs focus on bringing science to Alaska Native students in particular.

Scientists and teachers participating in the "Icefield to Estuary" program. Photo credit: Sarai Timothy

Scientists and teachers participating in the “Icefield to Estuary” program. Photo credit: Sarai Timothy

As an example, consider the Alaska GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) “Seasons and Biomes” project. It gets students involved in doing research by teaching them how to observe and document changes in the seasons–a great way to learn about the centrality of measurement in science, and at the same time, to come to understand climate change. “Seasons and Biomes” is a global project, but it has been heavily focused in Alaska in particular. Meanwhile, the Permafrost and Active Layer Monitoring (PALM) project does something similar—teaching students at hundreds of Alaska public schools how to monitor the health of permafrost in their area. In 2012, faculty members participating in PALM visited 14 Alaska schools, and gave workshops to 52 Alaska teachers.

Finally, the Rural Research Partnership focuses on rural schools in particular, once again allowing students in rural and Native communities to engage in real biological sciences research—for instance, studying tissue samples from humpback whales. Each school receives a loan of lab equipment to aid in the research. In 2011-2012, Alaska EPSCoR gave $ 7,550 in scholarships and prizes to seven rural students.

These are just some of our educational programs–and the goal is clear. We’re doing what we can to fill the science education gap in Alaska and create an “innovation generation” of kids who dig science, and see it as the way to a better future and a successful career. The jobs will be there waiting for them. We’ve just got to make sure they’re ready to fill them.

Thanks to Tania Clucas, Pips Veazey, and Diane Hirshberg for help in composing this post.

Written by nsfmessengers

July 17, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized