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North Slope students dig deeper into geology

Many U.S. high schools don’t even offer geology, but for a select group of Alaska students, each summer brings a traveling, hands-on geology lesson.
The 2014 GeoFORCE Alaska team at Multnomah Falls in Oregon

The 2014 GeoFORCE Alaska team at Multnomah Falls in Oregon (photo by Colby Wright).

The students walking through Big Obsidian Flow, the youngest lava flow in Oregon

The students walking through Big Obsidian Flow, the youngest lava flow in Oregon (photo by GeoFORCE).

Some of the students confess they didn’t like science when they joined GeoFORCE, but now they all share a passion for the earth sciences. Nineteen high school students from across Alaska’s North Slope traveled to the Pacific Northwest this year to study igneous rocks, volcanoes and coastal processes. For most of the group, this was their third year and third trip with GeoFORCE Alaska to get a hands-on understanding of science.

Shell Alaska has sponsored GeoFORCE Alaska since 2012, the first year of the program. This year, Shell also provided jackets for the students to wear during their trip.

The GeoFORCE Alaska academy trip to the Pacific Northwest included field stops at Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Crater Lake and Newberry National Monument. Last summer, these students traveled to the Grand Canyon while their first trip focused on geology along the road system in Alaska. For most of the students, the trip to the Grand Canyon was their first time traveling outside Alaska. Although Barrow, Wainwright and Point Hope are thousands of miles from these locations, they were amazed how familiar it felt.

“Crater Lake brought me back home,” said Jerry of Nuiqsut.

Exceeding challenges

Before the students even begin any lessons, they take a pre-test, which helps measure how much they learned. This year’s pre-test average was 43%. To remain in the program, all students must earn at least an 80% on the final test and maintain at least a B average in their high school science and math courses. GeoFORCE staff reported that this year students averaged 90% on the post-test, an all-time high.

“While we were waiting at the gate in the airport, one student told me, ‘The trip was so academically challenging, but that made my final exam score so much more satisfying,” said Anne Rittgers, program coordinator for GeoFORCE Alaska.

Every summer the students leave home for nearly two weeks to spend their days visiting geologic locations, stopping only for lectures, quizzes and meals. The days are intense – both mentally and physically.

“We’re on the go from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. This year we had 19 field stops in five days, which also included hikes and lectures in 95-degree weather. Every evening, students participated in a daily review and quiz. After the quiz, we launched into the evening lecture,” Rittgers said. “But the group was always eager to learn more and they never complained.”

Origins of GeoFORCE

The students walking along Seal Rock, a recreation area in Oregon

The students walking along Seal Rock, a recreation area in Oregon (photo by GeoFORCE).

The Alaska program is modeled after the successful Texas program. In 2011, GeoFORCE Texas sponsors, including Shell, approached the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) to discuss bringing the program to Alaska. Nationally, minorities, including Native students, are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Not only is that alarming, but in the North Slope Borough School District, where participants attend school, only 62% of students earned a high school degree in 2010. GeoFORCE knows this program helps develop strong and inquisitive students, but it also provides a vision for life beyond the North Slope and higher education.

“We’re focusing on increasing high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates, especially in STEM fields,” Rittgers said. “While they’re still in high school, we expose students to job opportunities and partner with other resources at UAF to show students they can make that transition from high school to college. I’m excited to work with them in the coming years on college prep, scholarships and applications.”

Many of the students are also shareholders of Native corporations, like Arctic Slope Regional Corp. (ASRC). By developing their interest in STEM fields, GeoFORCE hopes the students will pursue careers that benefit the North Slope communities and their homes.

“It’s unlocked a wider area of study. GeoFORCE and geology really opens your eyes to everything that’s out there. You look around and you’ll know a lot of the processes of what’s happened and be able to guess the history. That’s pretty awesome if you can do that. It’s such a great program,” said Braden, a student from Barrow.

Mental metamorphosis

The students walking along Seal Rock, a recreation area in Oregon

The students walking along Seal Rock, a recreation area in Oregon (photo by GeoFORCE).

More than academics, the program also helps students develop confidence. The program is structured so that the same student cohort spends four consecutive summers together. By developing these relationships and creating a peer-to-peer network, it places them in a comfortable environment while taking them far from home.

“The first year I worked with this group, I noticed one student was extremely shy. While meeting with the student’s teacher later that year, this teacher said he noticed the student’s confidence level had risen. He was raising his hand, offering ideas and sharing information. He always had a great sense of humor, but he didn’t share it with us that first year. Now he is participating at a much higher level, and he’s so much fun. I believe that the GeoFORCE experience is what raised his confidence level,” Rittgers said.

Shell Geologist Josh Payne has traveled with this group on each of their academy trips as an industry mentor. He says he returns annually because it’s fulfilling to see how much the students can learn in one week, as well as watching their growth over a three-year span.

“The relationship-building is important; they trust me and the students are beginning to decide their professions and universities, and my advice could help them in achieving their goals,” Payne said. “I’m very proud to work for a Shell, a company that allows young adults the opportunity of a lifetime to learn about geology and to give them confidence that they can accomplish anything if they set their minds to it.”

Next year will be the fourth and final trip for these students, the first cohort of Alaska’s GeoFORCE, where they’ll study structural geology in Yellowstone National Park.

“It will be exciting to see this first group of students graduate from the program, to follow their advancement and know that GeoFORCE played a role in their success. I will definitely miss this group. GeoFORCE becomes like a family,” Rittgers said. “I expect I’ll see some of them around UAF.”

Learn more about the program at its website and follow along with their journey on their Instagram.

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