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August 19th, 1999

CU-Boulder developing $1 million science project for Alaskan students

A CU-Boulder researcher is developing an interactive computer program for Alaskan middle school students to interest them in science and show them that natural sciences don't necessarily conflict with traditional American Indian views of nature.

The unique program is being developed in a CD-ROM format and includes interactive stories to engage students in understanding both the scientific and the traditional Indian view of the natural history of Alaska through multiple storytellers, said Scott Elias of CU-Boulder's Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research. Funded by a $1 million National Science Foundation grant, the project revolves around adventure stories to emphasize the relevance of science to native Alaskans' daily lives.

"Native American students in Alaska have been reluctant to pursue science as careers," said Elias. "We want to bridge the gap between cultures, and show them that science is just a tool. As scientists, we value their way of looking at nature, and we want to show them the views held by many Native Americans regarding Alaskan nature are not at odds with science research projects in Alaska."

One goal is to show the students that the scientific method is a vital tool in solving major problems in Arctic communities, said Elias, principal investigator on the grant. Such problems include the environmental impacts of mining and oil exploration, water quality issues, the decline of marine animals and climate change.

"The basis of the stories on the CD-ROMs will involve students living in a science research lab in the Alaskan wilderness, getting their education by satellite communications from an electronic, robotic character," he said. "The students will share their ideas and solutions interactively with the main computer character."

The CU-Boulder project initially is targeting middle schools in three communities: Fairbanks, Barrow and Kotzebue. Barrow is the northernmost town in Alaska and the largest Inupiat Eskimo community, while Kotzebue is a town on the west Arctic coast made up primarily of Yupik Eskimos.

The CU project involves using special teaching modules, including "action-adventure stories" that delve into topics as diverse as historic whaling practices, the Aurora Borealis and changes in sea-ice in Alaskan waters through the seasons.

In the interactive CD-ROM stories, the Alaskan students help the characters in the stories solve problems. Another part of the program includes hands-on laboratory work and the use of special reference libraries, he said. Elias plans to visit the Alaskan schools in September to enlist the cooperation of middle school teachers and administrators.

He will be accompanied by education evaluators John Peper and Emma Walton and artist Michael Carroll, who will create most of the artwork for the program.

Elias, who presented the idea at an Arctic science education workshop, believes the interactive programs also will be valuable to students in the lower 48 states as an educational tool. "The fundamentals of this new project could be applied to all kinds of American and Native American groups in the lower 48 states, with the idea being that science is not incompatible with the beliefs Native Americans have held for centuries."

Elias plans to start the program by evaluating student knowledge and attitudes about science careers. "The computer program uses story modules that discuss both scientific and native ways of understanding through the use of multiple storytellers," said Elias.

CU-Boulder students and researchers have been working in the Arctic for more than 30 years, collecting data on geology, biology, geography, climatology, hydrology and anthropology, said Elias. But to date, there has been no formal interaction between CU and American Indians in Alaska that returns the science back to the native communities.

The teaching modules include such topics as Arctic exploration, modern Arctic flora and fauna, the physics of solar phenomena, the archaeology and ice-age history of Alaska, mining and exploration, water quality issues, the physics of sea-ice, permafrost studies and Arctic climatology, he said.

"The topics are designed to show connections between the past, present and future of the Arctic, highlighting problems that can be addressed by scientific inquiry," he said. The laboratory section of the program has a combination of hands-on experiments and the interpretation of existing data."

As a paleoecologist, Elias has been conducting research in the Alaskan Arctic for 15 years, with emphasis on the Bering Land Bridge, thought to have been the primary migration route of the earliest Americans from Asia.