Sheep hearts and 'crime scenes' spark interest in science
by Tracy Kalytiak |
Dakota Davis, a Burchell High School student, wants to become a diesel mechanic. Analyzing a "crime scene" at Mat-Su College's inaugural Summer Science Academy might seem an odd choice for someone with that goal, but Dakota says the academy is moving her forward in a different way.
"My teacher told me I could get three credits in three weeks," she said. "The academy will help me get my science credit for high school so I can finish and then go to a technical school in Alaska. I see myself working at Red Dog Mine."
What aspect of the academy surprised him most?
"When we dissected a sheep heart to see how the heart works and where the blood pumps through," she said.
Creating a dynamic alliance
The Summer Science Academy is a first-time collaboration between Mat-Su College and the Mat-Su Borough School District's Burchell High School, which began May 26 and concludes June 12.
"Burchell brought a lot of resources to the table to make this collaboration work," said Diane Erickson, director of Mat-Su College's Office of Academic Affairs. "It is an amazing school."
Adam Mokelke, principal of Burchell High School and a UAA alumnus, worked with Erickson throughout the past school year to explore possible partnerships, before deciding to establish the academy.
He envisions an ongoing partnership in which the college and schools would offer a variety of academies to share resources and collaborative efforts not just in forensic science, but in theater, art and engineering.
A $5 million, five-year 21st Century Community Learning Center federal grant funded the academy (as well as a variety of other afterschool and summer school programs) and made the collaboration possible, Mokelke said.
Exploring forensic science
Dr. Kathleen Nevis of Mat-Su College's science department worked with Mokelke and Erickson to find a way to integrate high school and college level science course work.
Kelly Woolcott, a teacher from Mat-Su Career and Technical High School who once taught at Burchell, took on the challenge of teaching the high school students about forensic science, offering tutelage about anatomy and physiology (hence the sheep heart), crime scene investigation, toxicology screening, blood spatter analysis and production of DNA "fingerprints" using gel electrophoresis.
Why forensic science?
"It's the CSI effect," she said. "There are all these shows on TV about forensic science. More and more when you ask students about careers they want to pursue, forensic science is at the top of most students' lists."
Woolcott teaches the students about how to enter and process crime scenes.
"How to photograph them, how to collect samples, the chain of custody to get samples analyzed," she explained. "I have a crime scene set up. They go through various techniques, narrow down a suspect pool, interview witnesses and family members. Their final project will be as if they are in the courtroom: explaining evidence they looked at, primary conclusions and who they feel is the final suspect."
Mokelke says another component of the academy is better meeting needs of the students who attend Burchell, a place he says is a "school of choice" option for students who have struggled in traditional school settings or experienced challenges such as teen parenthood, poverty, homelessness or a chaotic home life.
"I am looking at not just great academic opportunities, but [career] areas that have a high level of field certifications and high level of job opportunities-shorter, more directly accessible, more immediately employable," he said, "because Burchell students aren't always four-year-college oriented. These are students who have had difficult turns in the road, who have been behind the eight ball."
Two of the academy's 15 students are teen parents, Mokelke said. Igniting a passion for science could open a life-transforming career path.
"One of those young moms, it may not be realistic for her to go into a four-year program right now and be a nurse," he said. "But if she can go into medical classes, become a certified nursing assistant with $20 an hour, that's a home run, grand slam. In the Valley, we have a lot of new medical facilities going up. There's a lot of opportunity but people need to have some sort of certification."
Finding fresh hope
One student who has experienced struggles is Rachel Runyon, 19, who previously attended Colony and Wasilla schools but quit at the age of 15 due to health issues. Her younger brother attended Burchell and liked it, so, earlier this year, Runyon enrolled there as well.
"I just didn't feel very productive when I wasn't in school," explained Runyon, who rents a room in the area and works at Wasilla's Home Depot store. "The next step in being productive was finishing high school. I want to study integrative medicine; I've been to a lot of different doctors and the only one that's helped has been an integrative medicine doctor. It's the best of both worlds-conventional medicine and alternative medicine."
Mokelke suggested she enroll in the academy.
"I'm learning a whole new aspect of DNA a lot more thoroughly than biology taught me," she said. "I like learning about science, how the body works. That's the kind of person I am. I wanted to do that before but lost hope in it a little bit. Now it's a little more do-able. I definitely need to go to college, take some different health classes."
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement