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Camp faces COVID for summer science to continue


When the global pandemic hit the world in early 2020, an off-road summer science camp for high school students in the northern half of Alaska was one of many canceled activities.

In 2021, the academic camp was back. This summer, 35 students from the North Slope, Northwest Arctic and Interior communities traveled to Fairbanks for a two-week geoscience adventure.

“It was good to get out of the village!” said Jim Killbear, 15, of Kaktovik.

GeoFORCE Alaska, a program at the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks College of Natural Science and Mathematics, normally brings together a large group of students for four consecutive summers. Instead, with concerns over COVID-19, groups of 11 to 12 students came from both northern and interior regions. The split from the group was one of the steps principal Sarah Fowell developed with university health and safety officials to minimize risk from the virus. Tests before and at the end of the trip, masking, distancing and lots of outdoor activities were others.

The students stayed in UAF dormitories for five days of classroom learning and local excursions, then spent six days traveling by bus from Fairbanks to Anchorage, visiting some of Alaska’s spectacular geological sites in path. In Fairbanks, the crew enjoyed private tours of the collection of fossilized woods, shells, skulls and animal bones at the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North, and passed through the research tunnel on permafrost maintained by the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.

At the Murie Science and Learning Center in Denali National Park, students saw traces of dinosaurs, and at Healy, they saw thick seams of coal that power the power plant. They hiked the Matanuska Glacier, took rafts to observe the Spencer Glacier feeding icebergs in Spencer Lake, and hiked the coastal sand dunes in Anchorage. A 2021 student said in a post-camp poll: “Every stop was my favorite.”

These and other field trips aren’t just for fun

they illustrate college-level concepts of how geological processes shape our planet. For students who see the landscape around them affected by erosion and melting permafrost, the lessons are personal.

When a new group of students apply once every four years, they must have good grades and submit essays and a teacher recommendation. They must maintain their grades to stay in the program and achieve a score of 80% or more on the final exam at the end of each Academy. One of the goals of the program is to increase high school graduation rates in rural Alaska school districts; others aim to encourage students to pursue graduate studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and to increase the number and diversity of Alaskan residents entering the technical workforce of the Alaska.

So far, the practical program is successful. GeoFORCE Alaska began in 2012, and 94-96% of students in the first two cohorts who completed the program graduated from high school or earned a GED. Many went to college.

This success rate is reflected in the financial support from sponsors such as Alaska Native Regional Corporations for the three regions served, and oil and mining companies, including ConocoPhillips and Teck Alaska. Generous donations cover student travel, accommodation, meals and supplies.

Next summer, students will complete projects at exceptional geological sites in the Southwestern United States, including the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. The following summer, students are to examine the volcanic features of the Pacific Northwest and build a geological map at Dinosaur National Monument in the Rocky Mountains.

“I can’t wait until next year!” Killbear said.

The next year students will be able to apply will be in 2024.