Bradner: Program steers Native students to science success

Tim Bradner | Alaska Journal of Commerce

2014 was a mixed year for Alaska's economy. Oil production and oil revenues took a dive. It was a tough year for mining but a good year for commercial fishing. Good for tourism too.

I'm encouraged by really good things happening in unlikely places, however.

I'm speaking of education -- rural education, in fact.

It goes without saying that there is a strong linkage between good schools and a strong economy. Alaska industries need skilled and educated workers.

Rural Alaska is an important part of this because, among other reasons, Native-owned corporations are now a key part of our state's economic foundation, and will become even more important. The future leaders of these corporations are in schools today, many in small villages. We all have a big stake in what they're learning.

The good news is that we're figuring out some of this. The stellar success is ANSEP, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, at the University of Alaska. ANSEP focuses on preparing Native youths, starting in middle schools, to tackle tough, university-level science and engineering programs.

The program now reaches into 95 rural communities and touches about 1,000 young Alaskans, from middle schools through the university. Non-Native students take advantage of ANSEP too.

The program's success is well documented: Two-thirds of students in ANSEP who enter the university's engineering program are still with it five years later. The national average in engineering is about 50 percent. So far the program has graduated about 300 engineers and scientists, all snapped up by Alaska employers.

Middle school statistics are even more impressive: Eighty percent of middle school students aided by ANSEP complete Algebra 1 by the time they finish eighth grade. Nationwide, only 26 percent of eighth graders achieve this.

Today most high school graduates aided by ANSEP reach the university fully prepared in math and science. No remedial education is needed.

"We have (Native) freshmen arriving at the university ready for Calculus 3 and differential equations," says professor Herb Schroeder, ANSEP's director. "In spring 2013, a student from Nome successfully completed advanced engineering math prior to high school graduation."

So what's the formula? High expectations, hard work, peer-taught study sessions, and ... bribery, if you call it that.

ANSEP's donors, who are major Alaska employers, provide computers that rural high schoolers can assemble and use if they agree to take tough math and science classes. Computers are bait, in others words. If students achieve certain grade levels, they can keep the computers.

However, the real breakthrough -- what is becoming known as "the ANSEP model" -- is simply this: If we can't get enough teaching resources to kids in small village schools, bring the kids to the resources.

ANSEP does this with summer "Acceleration Academies," or summer intensives for high schoolers at the university, with classes taught by university faculty. For middle schoolers, there's "Middle School Academy," also at the university, where the focus is on hands-on projects intended to inspire and pique interest.

Bringing kids to the resources works. ANSEP has documented that high schoolers advance a full year in science and math in each summer session. There's no magic to this, of course. It's a streamlined boarding school approach with an intensive schedule and high-caliber teaching.

ANSEP's model is now being copied. The Lower Kuskokwim School District has long worked with ANSEP and has a variation of its own in which kids from small village schools come to the regional hub, Bethel, for a fall semester of math and science. A year of learning for those subjects is squeezed into a semester. Kids return to their village schools for spring semester classes in humanities and electives, which are taught more easily in small schools.

It's too early to have data to demonstrate the success of this but anecdotal reports are encouraging. The Rasmuson Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided early seed money to test the concept with a pilot program, and the district was so encouraged it has now financed the program through existing budgets.

While the focus so far is on math and science, the Lower Kuskokwim district now wants to apply the model to vocational and career education, with village kids coming to Bethel for the spring semester to pursue courses with a career focus. Funds are still being raised to start this. The first career area, interestingly, is aviation. Flight service operators in the region have long had problems retaining pilots, mechanics and other skilled staff, and now they want to grow a local work force through youths who like living in the region.

Many similar experiments are underway in other small communities around the state. I'll write in future columns about innovations in distance education and digital learning.

What's significant is that innovations like these can be tested in small schools where the numbers are manageable. Successes can then be adapted and scaled up for large urban schools. Rural Alaska has become a kind of test-bed for experimentation.

What's interesting that it doesn't really take a lot of money to do these things. Also, good performance brings more support. ANSEP, for example, is now 17 years old and has solid support from the state's largest employers in the technical and scientific fields who see this as one way of renewing the work force.

Prestigious groups like the National Science Foundation are also supporting ANSEP, with an eye to duplicating its success at the national level.

The problem, ANSEP's director Schroeder says, is that these programs only reach a small fraction of rural youths who need them, to say nothing of urban schools students.

Schroeder says this doesn't need a lot of new money. Much could be done within existing school budgets, he said: "We're convinced there's enough money in the system to accomplish these goals for many, many more students but money is not always (now) spent in ways that lead to success."

If school districts could reorganize to follow certain concepts now proven by ANSEP, a lot of money isn't needed.

But if we maintain the status quo, "We are just paying for failure," Schroeder said.

Tim Bradner is an Alaska business writer who lives in Anchorage. His column appears once a month in the Daily News.

Tim Bradner