Tim Bradner: UAA program gives Native students a science, engineering boost

EconomyFebruary 9, 2013 

Looking for solutions to the difficult problems of education in rural Alaska, or education in general?

Look no further than the University of Alaska Anchorage's Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program. This highly acclaimed initiative has been getting attention and support for years from organizations like the National Science Foundation and major industries operating here.

Finally, the program is getting more recognition from Alaskans. It's about time. Politicians in Juneau are falling all over themselves to endorse ANSEP. I hope they draw the right lessons from its success.

ANSEP helps Alaska Native students, most of them from small rural communities, complete challenging four- and five-year engineering and science degree programs. Two-thirds of the students who start as freshmen finish in their original degree programs. That says a lot. The national retention rate for Native Americans in engineering is about 30 percent. The percentage for all students is just 50 percent.

ANSEP is reaching out to rural schools to encourage even more Native young people to take math and science. The program now touches about 1,000 students, including those at the university.

ANSEP has expanded from engineering to biological sciences, so the program feeds graduates into technical industries like oil and gas but also wildlife management agencies and, in recent years, health care. Since 2002, the university has graduated about 250 Alaska Native scientists and engineers.

There are several hundred more in the pipeline.

It took a while for ANSEP to be accepted, even within the university. The model is simple but unconventional, and it takes money. Fortunately, performance generates support, so corporate and agency donors, including Alaska Native corporations, have stepped up.

Here's the recipe:

Good preparation before coming to the university;

High standards and expectations;

Students staying together in dorms for the first year for mutual support (too many rural students get lost in the urban university system);

Study sessions taught by older ANSEP students who become role models; and

Paid internships with supporting companies and agencies.

Pre-university preparation was always central to ANSEP but it took a while to figure out how to do it well. At first, incoming freshman came to UAA for eight weeks of summer academic brush-up. This is still done, but ANSEP quickly realized more was needed.

One problem was that not all rural schools could offer the classes needed. ANSEP tried electronic "distance delivery" of classes to reinforce the local curricula. That had mixed success because of technology limitations and the lack of teachers with the right experience to coach.

Dissatisfied, ANSEP brought high school and now middle school students to UAA for summer "Acceleration Academies." Students get face to face with highly qualified instructors, including from the university, and take a full semester's worth of math and science in six intense weeks.

This is expensive but it works. The proof is that high school students coming in through ANSEP are arriving fully prepared to succeed academically. In fact, some finish their first year of college math in high school, so they go right to engineering and science. ANSEP's experience shows that distance delivery of classes on the Internet, which too many politicians see as an inexpensive alternative, can supplement but is no substitute for face-to-face instruction by qualified teachers.

Where does this leave us? We see what works but it takes money. ANSEP has shown the way but replicating its success will take a commitment. Are we willing to make it?

Tim Bradner is a business and economics writer in Anchorage.

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