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Alaska and Montana Bear Researchers Bring STEM Program to Anchorage Science Teachers

Captive black bear at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Photo by Doug Lindstrand)

Here in the Municipality of Anchorage, Alaska there are a lot of bears, and a lot of soon-to-be young bear scientists. A pilot program taught by bear biologists was launched in Alaska on Friday at a two-day workshop intended to “teach the teachers” how to conduct bear research and integrate bear biology into the high school classroom.

The curriculum is much about bears and much about STEM — the US government acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The objective is to make our future brighter by making our citizenry more competitive in math and science.

Through the Montana-based Bear Trust International (BTI), the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), two Anchorage-area educational institutions, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, high school teachers are being trained to teach bear science through a curriculum based entirely on bear research. Bears may be hibernating for winter, but bear science was on every one’s mind here in Anchorage last weekend.

On Friday BTI launched the pilot training program for its national “Teach the Teachers” curriculum at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, Alaska.  Mike Miller, the Executive Director of AWCC said that “People think of our signature wood bison conservation program as our connection to [Alaska Department of] Fish and Game, but we work with them on many projects like this education program.” As he looked over at two Kodiak yearlings which will remain awake for the winter, he said that “Bears are what people really come to see. They want to learn about bears and they are fascinated by people who research them.”

The workshop included talks from bear researchers, including a presentation by Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Kodiak Island bear biologist, Dr. Larry van Daele.  Larry discussed the years of successful management of bears on Kodiak and suggested that bears respond consistently to people who act consistently. It’s all about respecting bears and teaching bears to respect us,” said van Daele.

Much of the training involved teachers breaking out into groups to explore issues from human-bear conflict to analyzing real data sets provided by bear biologists. It was an intensive inaugural program which sought feedback from teachers on just how to implement real research into the classroom.

In the 2009 State of the Union address, President Obama launched a new campaign to prepare 100,000 STEM teachers with “strong teaching skills and deep content knowledge.”  “This was our focus,” said Steve Mendive, Development Director at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

Steve Mendive, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

In the Spring of 2011, Mendive discovered an opportunity to bring a unique STEM program to Anchorage after visiting the website of Bear Trust International. He had already been tasked with heading up a campaign to bring a new bear science, education, and research facility to the 200 acre, Portage-based wildlife campus. “Education will be a cornerstone of our own BEARS (Bear Education Awareness Research Sanctuary) project. The curriculum developed by Bear Trust International fits right in with our mission” said Mendive.

After contacting Dr. Melissa Reynolds-Hogland, the Executive Director of BTI, he met with representatives from the Anchorage School District, University of Alaska Anchorage and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to explore bringing this bear science curriculum to Anchorage. After some heavy leg work and five months of planning, the Bear Curriculum made its way from Montana to Alaska.

On Saturday the science teachers toured the wildlife campus and watched me demonstrate how we conduct our own research into visual acuity in brown bears through the operant conditioning of our Center’s two Kodiak bears.   I also gave a presentation on the evolutionary history of bears.   From my perspective this workshop provides an opportunity to learn about all kinds of research including collection-based work with our captive ambassadors as well as conventional field work that is critical to the conservation and management of wild bears.

“We have tailored much of our programs in the past to younger students, but now we embark on a mission to teach science teachers and can reach thousands of high school students with this innovative program based on inquiry learning,” said Kelly Miller, Education Director at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

The teachers will receive continuing education credits through the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Sponsors of teach the teacher program include BP, the Kodiak Brown Bear Center (Koniag Native Corp), ADF&G, BTI, AWCC and the Alyeska Resort.


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