The future of Alaska includes middle-school students who attended a two-week camp to boost their interest in math and science. Held at the University of Alaska Anchorage, it's part of the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program. - Alex DeMarban

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ANSEP program turns toward middle schools to build future scientists and engineers

July 18th, 2011 | Alex DeMarban Print this article   Email this article  

Who knew science could be so entertaining?

The goal: Using everyday items to create a mock spacesuit material that survives micro-meteoroids hurtling through space.

The test: Dropping a small, sharp rod onto the "fabric" to simulate the deadly space grains.

The scientists: Dozens of mostly Alaska Native middle-school students, many with limited science experience.

The contest last week - too fun to be geeky - was part of the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

(See photos of the event on The Arctic Sounder's Facebook page [].)

Professor Herb Schroeder launched ANSEP 16 years ago after realizing Natives from rural Alaska started college without basic math and science skills.

The program's open to all ethnicities, though the majority of its students are Native. It starts early, with mentors traveling to high schools and middle schools across Alaska and tutors who are enrolled in ANSEP preparing the up-and-comers for college.

Before the program began, only two Alaska Natives held engineering degrees from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Today, ANSEP has graduated more than 200 Alaska Natives, said Schroeder.

Key to the program are the computers that pre-college students build, with help from the mentors. The students can keep them, but only if they graduate from tough classes. High school students, for example, must have chemistry, physics and trigonometry under their belts.

The effort has grown in recent years, branching to colleges outside Alaska to focus on American Indian and Native Hawaiian students.

It's getting younger, too. ANSEP began dipping into the middle schools last year, launching its two-week-long summer camp.

Fifty-two students attended this year in Anchorage, out of some 250 applicants, said Pamela Jones-Kennedy with the Harris Foundation, a sponsor of the camp along with ExxonMobil and other corporations.

Part of the fun included dissecting a trout.

"Scary," said Wainwright's Samantha Wade, 11.

The fish had all those "weird things" inside it, like a creepy spine and mushy organs.

Wearing glasses with sparkly frames, Samantha said she wants to be a scientist. She came to the camp to boost her math and science experience.

Another fun activity: Building the computers the students take home to their villages. They give them back if they don't finish Algebra I before they start high school, said Schroeder. To assemble them, the kids twisted together wires, inserted chips and downloaded programs.

Then they got online.

"I said, 'Man, as I soon as get the Internet, I'm checking Facebook,' " said Point Hope's Alfred Omnick, 13.

Omnick, his black bangs dipping to his eyes, said he wants to be an architect so he can use lots of math.

For the spacesuit test on Thursday the kids crowded into a big window-filled room in the ANSEP building - a structure designed partly by some of the program's former students.

Teams of chatty kids, including one as young as 10, perused a list to select materials they'd use for their "spacesuit fabric."

Bits of foam plates, card stock, wax paper and other items fell to the floor as they cut out small squares. They taped together 14 layers of materials - each team choosing their own arrangement for strength - creating the test swatch.

Later, they huddled around the drop zone in the middle of the room, shouting out a rocket-launch countdown before each trial.

"Three, two, one!"

Emcee Mike Nabers, an ANSEP graduate from Wainwright, dropped the rod - a heavy prick punch - down a tube of PVC piping.

NASA scientists once wrestled with similar questions, he said. A tiny hole in a suit would kill an astronaut.

The projectile crashed to the ground and onto the swatches, easily most of them.

"We're killing spacemen today," shouted one boy.

When the punch shattered a tile square set down to protect the wooden floor, the room erupted in "Oooohs."

Only a few of the 9 swatches stood up to the punch.

"We have a survivor!" shouted Nabers, inspecting one of the lucky squares.

Kiana's Kaelyn Stalker, 11, wore safety glasses and sat near the drop zone on the floor. Her knees tucked under her, she had a close-up view and clapped with each hit.

The winner was Team Equals Gage - only nine layers were pierced.

The team's members said they built their swatch strategically, putting the tough, stiffer paper toward the top to absorb the blows. The bottom layers included more of the softer foam to act as a shock absorber.

"It softened the hit," said Bethel's Gage Hoffman, 13.

Schroeder watched the action in a red kuspuk given him by former students. An embroidered word on the breast says "Ilisaurri," Yup'ik for teacher.

Schroeder said he's never thought much about the legacy he's creating, though it's something people remind him of more frequently.

No, he seemed more interested in the day's events.

"They were able to articulate that?" he said, shaking his head and clearly impressed with Team Equal's Gage's winning strategy.


Alex DeMarban can be reached at, or by phone at (907) 348-2444.

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