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Geoscience comes alive for Alaskan youth

Students learn about Alaska geology through week-long GeoFORCE trip
Braden Miguel enjoys the sights at Portage Lake

Braden Miguel enjoys the sights at Portage Lake, a stop in his GeoFORCE trip throughout Alaska to locations conducive to geoscience study - Photo by Doug Ratcliff, courtesy of GeoFORCE.

It’s said that science can help you look at the world in new ways. For 14-year-old Braden Miguel, who is traveling across Alaska learning about geoscience in world-class destinations like Denali National Park and the Matanuska Glacier, this certainly rings true.

“I like science,” said Miguel, who is from Barrow, a village of approximately 4,200 on Alaska’s Arctic coast. “It explains everything. I like knowing what I see, and what’s happening.”

Miguel is on a week-long bus trip in the interior and southern regions of Alaska as part of GeoFORCE, a program sponsored by Shell, Great Bear Petroleum LLC, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., SolstenXP and other companies. 

"This program works to increase the number and diversity of students pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degree programs. Miguel is part of a group of ninth graders from Barrow and seven other northern Alaska communities. In addition to a week-long trip each summer, GeoFORCE will support and mentor them throughout their high school career. The goal is to keep them engaged in science education and encourage them to attend college, especially in STEM degrees. This program connects kids who want to learn.

“The real strength is that they stay together,” said Doug Ratcliff, Director of Outreach at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. “These are kids who normally don’t track into these disciplines.”

Shell geologists (from left to right) Josh Payne, Denise Butler and Ron Tingook

Shell geologists (from left to right) Josh Payne, Denise Butler and Ron Tingook view Portage Glacier on a boat tour with the Alaska GeoFORCE students - Photo by Doug Ratcliff, courtesy of GeoFORCE.

The GeoFORCE program began at the University of Texas, Jackson School of Geoscience with Shell’s support eight years ago and currently serves about 650 students in rural south-central Texas and inner city Houston. More than 70 percent of students in these regions are economically disadvantaged, and more than 80 percent are minorities. After eight successful years, the program has a 100 percent high school graduation rate. Four hundred and nine graduates are now in college, more than 60 percent of whom are declared STEM majors.

Sixteen groups of Texas students have undertaken trips this summer – This year the program has expanded to Alaska in a new partnership between the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Miguel’s group is the first GeoFORCE trip to run in Alaska.

Of the 17 trips this summer, Shell scientists are accompanying four of them. Three Shell geologists, Denise Butler, Geoscience Discipline Lead, Josh Payne and Ron Tingook, joined the Alaska group. This is definitely not the first GeoFORCE trip for Butler, a longtime supporter of the program.

”Seeing the change in these kids in one week is so rewarding,” said Butler. “The relationships they form here will last many years. This program not only opens their minds to the wonders of earth science but opens up their world.”

Miguel’s group will continue together throughout high school. Next summer, this group will attend their second geoscience field trip in the continental United States, and another group of 9th graders will join the program. For the Alaska Venture, the program helps develop a future local workforce and provides a tangible benefit to local communities. With the support of GeoFORCE staff and volunteers, sponsors like Shell and the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the communities and families themselves, these students stand a good chance of succeeding academically.

“My family really liked it,” said Lorean Driggs, 14, a participant from Wainwright, Alaska. “When they first heard about it, they told me to go. They were more worried about me finishing my application than I was.”