GeoFORCE Alaska is open to students from the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs. Of the 34 students currently enrolled in the program, 82% identify as Alaska Native. These students are shareholders in regional corporations, including two GeoFORCE sponsors, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) and NANA. These corporations hold title to millions of acres of land that contain potentially valuable oil, gas, coal, and mineral resources. Because rural Alaskan residents with degrees in STEM fields bring uniquely informed perspectives to decisions regarding the management of cultural and natural resources, ASRC and NANA seek to employ shareholders. Petroleum exploration, mineral exploration, and oilfield service companies active in Alaska also seek to hire Alaska residents, but industry jobs require a high school diploma, and more technical positions require a post-secondary degree.
Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, the average dropout rate for grades 7-12 was ~8% per year in the North Slope School District and ~6% per year in the Northwest Arctic School District. Statewide results highlight the magnitude of the problem for Alaska Native students. During the 2014-2015 school year alone, 37.6% of Alaska Native students dropped out of Alaskan public schools (https://education.alaska.gov/stats/). At the college level, Alaska Native students are underrepresented in UAF science departments, particularly chemistry, physics, and geology. GeoFORCE Alaska is designed to raise high school graduation rates in rural communities, encourage participants to pursue college degrees in STEM fields, and increase the diversity of Alaska’s technical workforce.
GeoFORCE Alaska is a four-year, field-based, summer geoscience program for high school students from Alaska’s North Slope and Northwest Arctic Boroughs. The curriculum is developed and delivered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) College of Natural Science and Mathematics (CNSM) in partnership with the longstanding GeoFORCE Texas program. Our mission is to raise high school graduation rates; encourage students to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors in college; and increase the number and diversity of Alaska residents entering Alaska’s technical workforce.
GeoFORCE Alaska uses curriculum designed to reinforce high school grade-level expectations and delivery methods that stress relevance, enhance preparation, and expose students to life on college campuses.
A key difference between GeoFORCE Alaska and other summer science programs for rural students is the emphasis on hands-on field projects that allow students to practice the scientific method. In addition to reading about geology, students have the opportunity to visit spectacular geological locations and see features from all angles. The hands-on approach allows students to make their own observations and suggest original hypotheses. For students who have learned geology primarily through textbooks, this can be a revelation. To paraphrase the third-year essay of one GeoFORCE Alaska student, “…the features are right there in front of you, so you don’t have to try really, really hard to picture them in your head.”
A second distinguishing feature of GeoFORCE Alaska is that it is a four-year program. Students enter the program the summer after 8th or 9th grade and embark on their fourth field experience before or immediately after their senior year. Students must submit transcripts annually; they are required to earn a B average in high school science and math courses throughout the year in order to avoid being placed on probation. Students on probation must draft an academic plan for the coming year outlining a path to improve their performance. They must also demonstrate results in order to be eligible for the next summer Academy.
The four GeoFORCE Academies are both fun and academically intense. The curriculum builds across the program, reinforcing grade-level expectations and giving students a chance to apply the scientific method at spectacular geological locations in and beyond Alaska. Each day, field exercises are followed by interactive evening classes, a review session, and a quiz. Students are required to score at least 80% on a final exam in order to avoid being placed on probation.
Evening classes are designed to prepare students for daily field projects. Lectures emphasize active learning strategies that require students to engage with the material and solve problems, rather than passively taking notes. GeoFORCE students participate in lectures by brainstorming with peers, answering clicker questions, identifying rock samples, and constructing models or concept diagrams.
Upon arrival at the summer Academy, GeoFORCE students are grouped into teams of four to six students from multiple villages. These teams work together throughout the excursion to complete projects, create daily presentations for review sessions, and solve problems through brainstorming and peer instruction. The teams change every year to expand the students’ social network and increase their confidence meeting new people and collaborating with students from other communities.
Each team is guided and facilitated by a graduate or undergraduate student counselor, who also serves as a role model. Counselors are both friends and instructors. They help break the ice, keep groups on task, reward and encourage team member achievements, and provide additional explanations in the field. Counselors also model good academic practices and tutor students at their request. Exit surveys unanimously indicate that students find their counselors to be friendly and/or consider them friends. Working closely with counselors pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees helps students to envision the next step in their own education.
On each excursion, GeoFORCE students and staff are joined by one or two mentors, employed by industry sponsors. Mentors are assigned to different student teams throughout the week and serve as facilitators or instructors, as determined by the needs or requests of the team. Over the course of four summer Academies, mentors present students with firsthand descriptions of the nature and variety of jobs available to geoscientists. In addition to providing a better sense of what geoscientists actually do at work, interaction with mentors from industry and Native corporation sponsors expands students’ network of professional contacts, which may lead to future internships or jobs.
Examples and field projects are designed to demonstrate relevance to Alaskan geology and Alaskan issues. The Alaska Academy field excursion was developed specifically to expose students from villages on the Arctic Ocean coast to iconic features of Alaskan geology, including glaciers, river systems, coal deposits, and mountains. Guidebooks for the other three trips cite Alaskan examples and specify connections between geologic features in Alaska and sites GeoFORCE visits in the contiguous 48 states. For example, volcanoes visited during the Northwest Academy share a geologic setting with Alaskan volcanoes, and students are asked to brainstorm lists of similarities and differences between the rocky coastline of Oregon and the coastlines near their villages. Discussions with mentors (see above) also help uncover connections between geoscience jobs and Alaska’s economy.
GeoFORCE Alaska takes students to a different region of the United States during each of the four consecutive summers. The curriculum builds across the four summer ‘Academy’ trips. In addition to reinforcing grade-level expectations, the Academies introduce progressively more challenging field projects.
Each trip includes the students, an instructor from the UAF Dept. of Geology & Geophysics, an education coach (usually a secondary educator), two mentors from industry sponsors, a coordinator, a trail driver, and graduate or undergraduate student counselors (one for every five students). Days start early and end late. There might be a short introductory lecture about what the group will see that day, but most of the teaching takes place in the field. A field guide, developed and written by GeoFORCE staff, provides the background for the daily exercises; students are expected to read it before each stop. The material covered in the field guides is on par with introductory college courses in geology. Every evening there is a review and a quiz about the day’s concepts, followed by classroom activities designed to prepare students for what they will do the next day. Each trip, mentors and other professional geologists are given the opportunity to talk with the students about their career paths and work experiences. A final exam is given at the end of the trip; students must score at least 80% on this exam to avoid being placed on probation.
GeoFORCE Alaska is developed and delivered in partnership with the highly successful GeoFORCE Texas program, operated by the Jackson School of Geosciences at The University of Texas at Austin. GeoFORCE Texas was created to increase high school graduation and workforce diversity in rural southwest Texas. Now in its eleventh year, the GeoFORCE Texas program boasts a 100% high school graduation rate, a 96% college matriculation rate, and a 2% college dropout rate.
In order to encourage rural Alaskan high school students to pursue scientific interests and develop scientific abilities, GeoFORCE Alaska was launched by GeoFORCE Texas and UAF in the summer of 2012, at the request and expense of industry sponsors. The first cohort of 18 GeoFORCE Alaska students from the North Slope Borough completed the GeoFORCE Alaska program in summer 2015. 94% of these students have graduated from high school, at least 72% plan to attend college in fall 2016, and 33% plan to major in geoscience. One student elected to forego college in favor of an internship at ASRC. A second cohort of 34 students from the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs entered the program and completed the First-Year Academy in summer 2016. Feedback on the exit survey was strongly positive. 100% indicated that they learned a lot, while 97% indicated that they made new friends, increased their interest in science, and/or really look forward to the Second-Year Academy.
Generous contributions from these companies are what makes the GeoFORCE Alaska experience possible for our students.
We appreciate your generosity.
From the entire GeoFORCE Alaska family: thank you, quyanaq, taikuu!