The Kotzebue High School Kobuk Lakers traveled to Seward recently to compete in the marine science competition, the Tsunami Bowl. (Front) Meryl Ferguson, Qaulluq Henry, and coach Lance Westing, (middle) Margy Norton and Chris Foster, (back) Ember Eck. - Sharice Walker

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Kotzebue students try their science chops in Seward

February 22nd, 2013 | Hannah Heimbuch Print this article   Email this article  

Kotzebue's Kobuk Lakers finally got the chance to put months of study to good use when they traveled to Seward for the Tsunami Bowl in early February. The five high school students made up one of 24 teams that threw their hat into the academic competition. Despite being mostly new to the event, their coach was pleased with the effort the Kotzebue students put forth.

"Every year the kids absolutely amaze me," said coach and high school science teacher Lance Westing. "We had kind of a young team, three kids that had never done it before. I think they all came away pretty happy with what they did."

For 16 years now, the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Alaska Sea Grant Program has welcomed science students from around Alaska to gather for the Tsunami Bowl. It's the Alaska leg of the National Ocean Sciences Bowl. The three-day competition asks high school students to put on their marine science thinking caps and show what they know about our biological world.

For Kotzebue, Margy Norton, Ember Eck, Meryl Ferguson, Chris Foster and Qaulluq Henry collaborated on a research paper and quiz competition that pitted them against schools from across the state.

"The highlight was probably in quiz bowl itself," Westing said. "In the quiz round they split us up into three different brackets. We ended up winning that bracket, and I think the kids felt pretty good about that."

The competition is a way to boost interest in the field on many levels, said Phyllis Shoemaker from the Seward Marine Center.

"We want to encourage teachers to teach marine science in high school and integrate (it) into their other classrooms," Shoemaker said. "And we also want to encourage students to consider a career in some marine-related field."

The quiz topics are comprehensive, Shoemaker said, and really require students to stretch their minds around the diverse issues that make up marine science.

"It could be chemistry, physics, geology, social sciences," she said. "Some of the questions are about literature that deals with marine topics, policy, laws and things that pertain to the marine environment."

But the benefits go beyond the marine sciences field, Westing said, preparing students for a new level of academic success.

The research paper alone is a large undertaking - which they do as a group - requiring them to find sources and conduct interviews to create a 10- to 20-page paper.

"That's a big time skill that a lot of them get exposure to that maybe they haven't had to do on that scale before," Westing said.

The Kobuk Lakers' paper this year was entitled "Chum Salmon and Maintaining a Healthy Habitat in the Hotham Inlet Estuary."

All of the teams were given the same topic - A Window Into Freshwater Science - which focused on estuarine systems and their importance to the surrounding ecosystem.

Westing appreciated the fact that though the topic was the same for all schools throughout the state, they were able to tailor their research paper specifically and meaningfully for the Northwest.

"Most of the topics each year are flexible enough that they can chose something that has very real bearing on their community," Westing said. "We've been able to do that every year."

In the past few years that Kotzebue has been sending a team, various topics have allowed the Northwest students to discuss the opening of the Northwest Passage, the Arctic phytoplankton blooms, science surrounding the sheefish, and now this year the chum salmon.

Chum salmon are the only species commercially fished in a significant way in the Kotzebue area.

Studying these topics, that have real impact and significance close to home, strengthens the connection and awareness local students have to their natural environment, Westing said. Even if they do not seek out a career in marine sciences, this kind of close study boosts their ability to impact the future of those systems as informed residents.

The Alaska competition has reached its highest ever participation, Shoemaker said, and boasts an impressive number of schools considering the distance that Alaska students have to travel to take part.

The winners will travel to Wisconsin for the national finals in April. This year, that team is Pogonophoraphobia from Juneau-Douglas High School.

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at


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