ANSEP builds bridges for middle schoolers to science education

Middle School students from around the state are participating in the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program at UAA this year. Forty-eight students from the Lower Yukon and Northwest Arctic Borough completed the two-week residential program on Friday but their learning doesn’t stop there.

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A group of middle schoolers crowd around two balsa wood bridge models. A box hangs from each one and two helpers are slowly adding weights to see how much the structures can hold. Each falls into the box with a clunk until suddenly they go too far. The bridges splinter simultaneous sending bits of wood into the gasping crowd. They all cheer at the spectacle.

“And that’s a good example of why we wear safety glasses,” says program director Josephine Mattison.

Helpers add weights to test the strength of the ANSEP student bridges. Keto/KAKM
Helpers add weights to test the strength of the ANSEP student bridges. Keto/KAKM

The students are testing their final engineering projects to measure the strength of different design types. Most of the bridges held five to ten times more than the students anticipated.

Jaye Chandler from Scammon Bay, Pius Hoover II from Emmonak, and Emily Harry from Alakauk were on the winning team. Their bridge held 187 pounds including the 15 pound box that held the weights. They say they liked planning the bridge.

“Map out the designs, like a blueprint,” they advise.

But Pius and Jaye say the camp was about more than just the final project.

“Meeting new people,” says Pius.

“Meeting the new people, building the computer, and making the bridge,” chimes in Jaye. Emily nods and grins in agreement.

Yeah, you heard that right. They built computers, too, by putting together wires, motherboards, and chips. They get to keep their new equipment, but in return they have to promise to finish Algebra I before starting high school. An Urban Institute evaluation of the program shows that so far, 77 percent of middle school participants have followed through.

Mattison says ANSEP aims to spark the kids’ interest in math and science early, then keep them interested during high school.

“And so we want students to commit to that higher level math track to better prepare them for those higher level math and science classes at high school, which will better help them enter university prepared.”

Wilma Destor with the Lower Kuskokwim School District says the program is motivating her students to stay active with math and science. She says they’ve gone on to the high school accelerated program and participated in statewide science competitions.

“When they get home they inspire other students. They become leaders in their school and in their classroom. And they say ‘Hey, you need to do this. We need to perform well in class because we want you to participate in the ANSEP program because it’s a very, very good program.'”

And what do the kids say they want to do and be in the future?

“Go to college and become a teacher,” says Mary Ford from Hooper Bay.

“A civil engineer,” says Pius.

“Probably get a job. Like a high paying job,” says Lanny Oktoyak from Emmonak. What kind of high paying job? “Maybe an engineer.”

The ANSEP Middle School Program started in 2012. They’re running five sessions this school year and three more in the summer.