During my career, I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to work with a number of school districts, and I’m in awe of what these students and teachers have been able to achieve. Because of the geographic challenges that many schools in Alaska face, technology plays an important role in collaboration. From designing systems for forecasting an earthquake to documenting coastal erosion, the innovation coming out of classrooms in Alaska is remarkable. Below are just a few of the amazing examples of innovation happening in our backyard. We must continue to support these efforts.
Kodiak Island High School
Kodiak Island School District has done some amazing things leveraging the talents of its students with the support of Superintendent Stewart McDonald. Kodiak high school students have been collaborating with leading scientists in the public and private sector to design and implement real-world solutions to current Arctic problems. These efforts help empower students and communities and stimulate interest in STEM education.
For example, in 2015, Kodiak high school students designed and built a real-time earthquake forecasting system based on the theory that magnetic field anomalies may precede earthquakes. Students entered that project in the NASA World Wind Europa Challenge and took first place, beating out domestic and international universities. The team also received a perfect score of 100 from two judges (also a first). The students’ continuing research is now relied on by researchers around the world.
Kodiak high school students are also currently designing small satellites that will be launched from weather balloons into high altitude/low earth orbits in partnership with NASA, the Kodiak Launch Complex and Alaska Aerospace.
It is pretty impressive to think that students in Alaska are impacting NASA research!
UAF Upward Bound and the Alaska National Science Foundation Experimental Program
The Modern Blanket Toss is a three-year pilot project of University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Upward Bound and the Alaska National Science Foundation Experimental Program aimed at stimulating competitive research. As part of the project, students from five rural Alaska high schools learned about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and geographic information systems through after-school activities. They received immersive training during a residential summer program at UAF and used drones for mapping projects to benefit their communities.
Students in Shishmaref have been documenting sea ice movement as well as coastal erosion in their community before and after storms. This research is highly relevant to citizen empowerment and has a direct impact on the community. In August 2016, residents of Shishmaref voted to relocate their entire community inland due to coastal erosion and climate change.
Students in Nikiski and Chefornak have also worked to map methane pockets in nearby lakes and rivers. Bethel students have looked for rotten ice on the Kuskokwim River. And Seward high schoolers made 3D maps of inaccessible mountain valleys to chart their potential to contribute to flooding.
In a state with rough terrain, UAV mapping is a valuable asset.
LKSD State-of-the-Art Distance Learning Program
The Lower Kuskokwim School District includes 23 communities spread throughout Southwest Alaska with access only by plane. With such a large terrain to cover, ensuring quality education is challenging. With the help of Superintendent Dan Walker, the district implemented the state’s largest distance education program through video conferencing that links a system of 28 schools in a rural geographical area that spans 22,000 square miles. Each student has direct access to the teaching studio in Bethel and other schools within the district so that regardless of location, students receive instruction from highly qualified teachers in math, science, Alaska native languages and more. This has the ability to transform lives by giving all students equal opportunity. It is also helpful that the schools are able to share resources across the district.
Sitka School District
The Sitka School District has made amazing progress in connecting its students over the last few years and catapulted itself as a leader in innovation. The district is part of The League of Innovative Schools, a coalition of 87 forward-thinking school districts across the country, and the only district represented in Alaska. Superintendent Dr. Mary Wegner was instrumental in revamping the district’s technology infrastructure and enabling 100 percent of students to be connected to high-speed internet to leverage digital teaching tools. Digital technologies have created new ways of making things and Sitka High School has been in the forefront of bringing these new manufacturing technologies to the State of Alaska. The Fabrication and Design Lab (Fab Lab) provides students with the opportunity to use state-of-the-art equipment and digital technology to build and construct their designs.
Additionally, in collaboration with community partners like the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, the Arts, Culture, and Technology Standards and Curriculum program (ACT) at Sitka School District integrates ACT skills and mindset into academic content throughout the district.
I look forward to continuing to see the creativity coming out of students in Alaska. Now more than ever, it is critical that we continue to provide opportunities and access to the digital tools that make this innovation possible. Students in Alaska have made it clear what they can do when given the right tools.
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