Alaska students share real-life climate change experiences at international event

This summer seven Alaska high school students, and four teachers traveled to Ireland to present their climate change research. In doing so they discovered their power to contribute to science and their culture.

The group was part of Alaska GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) and the Arctic and Earth SIGNs (STEM Integration of GLOBE and NASA) Climate Change and my Community course. Course participants conducted climate change science and developed stewardship projects in their communities. In Ireland, they shared their findings with peers from around the world.

The GLOBE Learning Expedition takes place every four years, this year in Killarney, Ireland, to connect students participating in GLOBE. The international program that promotes environmental education and equips participants with protocols and tools for gathering scientific data. Alaska GLOBE prioritizes climate change education with an impact.

Reclaiming the future

During the GLOBE Learning Expedition four seniors, Amber Alexie, Janna Pavilla, Jessie Nicholas and Tristan Chimegalrea, from the Ket’acik Aapalluk Memorial School in the Yupik community of Kwethluk, Alaska shared their story of reclaiming their future. A future where climate change impacts everyday life.

Accelerated by climate change and human activity, the bank of the Kwethluk River is eroding. Several homes have been vacated, and Kwethluk residents feel that losing land means losing part of their history. “We want to preserve the land of our elders and their way of life,” said the student team which was led by teachers Whitney Spiehler and Pauline Morris, a Native Elder. Equipped with GLOBE science protocols and knowledge from local elders, the team developed a project to investigate erosion. They found that soil moisture, vegetation, and boat anchoring played a role. Now they are petitioning their community to act.

In Ireland, the team took a unique approach to sharing their climate change experience while combating loss of indigenous heritage. They wrote, choreographed, and performed a Yupik dance.

The journey to Ireland wasn’t just about sharing science and Yupik heritage. It was an opportunity for Alaska students to see and experience the world. “It was a lot of firsts,” said Alaska GLOBE director and expedition mentor, Elena Sparrow of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Coming from a graduating class of eleven, meant that in addition to traveling outside of United States for the first time, the Kwethluk students had never presented to so many peers. More than 400 participants from 39 countries attended the GLOBE Learning Expedition.

“It was so good to see these young people so invested in life, and learning and experiencing science, and not being shy about it,” said Sparrow.

The Kwethluk team after performing their Yupik dance at the Globe Learning Expedition in Ireland. The team wore traditional garments made by their Native Elders. From left to right: teacher and Native Elder Pauline Morris, Jessie Nicholas, science teacher Whitney Spiehler, Elena Sparrow, Amber Alexie, Janna Pavilla, and Tristan Chimegalrea.

Do not forget the young ones

Terri Mynatt is another Alaska GLOBE participant. She teaches Kindergarten through 2nd grade in Venetie, Alaska, population 166. Her message in Ireland, “Do not forget the young ones. They may be little but they can still do good science.”

For the past two years Mynatt and her students partnered with Alaska GLOBE leader Dr. Katie Spellman, of the International Arctic Research Center, to study how climate change might be affecting berries. “Berries are vital to the Alaska Native diet, and they are changing,” said the team. “Berries are an approachable topic for young learners, and the students are genuine collaborators to find out what is happening to them.”

In addition to gathering data on when berries ripen and disappear through fall and winter, the young class also observed temperature, cloud types, cloud cover and depth of soil freezing using GLOBE protocols and gave back to their community by making berry jam for all the elders. Their age appropriate contribution made a significant impact to the science and the community.

Palmer High School students Blainey Dunyon, Sapphira Flint and Katie Ziegler and their teacher Cheryl Williams also presented at the GLOBE Learning Expedition in Ireland. The team explored changes in growing season.

Elena Sparrow and Venetie teacher Terri Mynatt participating in the GLOBE Learning Expedition parade through downtown Killarney, Ireland.

A mentor for many

These community-based projects are only three of many Alaska GLOBE stories. Since 1996, when Sparrow founded Alaska GLOBE, 5,700 Alaska students have participated.

Sparrow is a soil microbiologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But she is best known for her role mentoring students and teachers in science. In fact, this year she was honored with a presidential award for her efforts.

“That’s the important part, the connection with the teachers and the students,” said Sparrow. If you train teachers and leave them, they won’t be as successful as if you guide them along the way. Leading a program that inspires students and teachers to do actual science and make decisions based on data was really attractive to Sparrow. “It [Alaska GLOBE] wasn’t a money-making venture, I just promised I would train teachers and support them.”

Western science and Alaska Native knowledge

The early years were bumpy for Sparrow. She volunteered her time, and scrapped by with little pots of money. “Climate change was a bad word back then [in the 1990s],” said Sparrow. She wanted to change that. She also wanted to blend western science with Alaska Native knowledge.

When she combined the two in a funding proposal she met roadblocks. After using the phrase “Native science” a reviewer rebutted with “there is no such thing as Native science.” Next try, Sparrow wrote that she wanted to combine western science with “Native ways of knowing.” Again, a reviewer returned the proposal saying there could be no spirituality. Discouraged, but determined, she resubmitted again. This time she wrote “combining western science and Native observations.” It was successful.

That was the beginning. Sparrow has shepherded countless education programs that empower Alaska and the world to do good science and embrace culture. Sparrow believes that the key to blending western and Alaska Native science and knowledge is being slow and thoughtful. “It is really a long process,” she said. The first step is acknowledging that there are different knowledge systems. The next step is “giving voice and time” for each system.

“In western science there are protocols,” Sparrow explained. “There are also protocols in indigenous knowledge.” For example, making time for personal introductions shows respect. Listening to each other and patiently engaging each person, shows respect. “They may sound like little steps but they are really important.” Alaska GLOBE and Arctic and Earth SIGNs does just that. It provides protocols for science and for linking indigenous knowledge. This year 39 individuals representing 18 communities in Alaska and the United States participated in the Climate Change and my Community course. Over the next year they will develop meaningful projects like those completed in Kwethluk, Venetie and Palmer.

Elena Sparrow and Katie Spellman teaching the next group of educators during the 2018 Climate Change and My Community course.

Arctic and Earth SIGNs is funded by NASA. The Kwethluk team were funded in part by one of the NSF INCLUDES program projects based in Boulder, Colorado. Terri Mynatt participated through the Arctic in the Classroom program of the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States. ARCUS also funded Mynatt’s trip to Ireland. Cheryl Williams and her team received an award from the GLOBE Implementation Office to travel and present in Ireland.