Students in Brian Mason’s class at Chugiak High School didn’t ace their big test last week. They butchered it.
Mason brought a cow moose carcass to class in the back of his pickup truck that morning, and for the rest of the day his students went to work de-boning, separating, grinding and packaging the animal. The bloody business served as a way to immerse the World Discovery Seminar program students in Alaska cultural traditions, give them a basic understanding of anatomy and teach them practical life skills.
“What I try to emphasize — and the World Discovery Seminar program as a whole — is to emphasize experiential learning,” he said as nearly 30 of his students used thin knives to slice up the carcass. “You can learn certainly about anatomy from diagrams and textbooks and videos but getting your hands on an animal is a big part of the science aspect of it.”
The World Discovery Seminar (WDS) program is a “school within a school” at Chugiak whose goal is to “establish a smaller learning community that creates a sense of identity, belonging, and teamwork within the WDS program, while maintaining strong ties to the CHS families of departments and programs,” according to the CHS website.
Around 125 students are participating in WDS, which has four teachers devoted to the program. The program uses the “Paidea” method, which emphasizes Socratic learning, in-depth learning and hands-on activities to get students to become “multifaceted thinkers.”
Ryley Edwards said the hands-on nature of the program gives she and her WDS classmates a better insight into what they’re studying.
“We do a lot of things that are more interactive than other classes,” she said. “It’s more fun for learning stuff instead of just on paper.”
Although it’s common for students to participate in unique projects, Tuesday’s moose butchering class was unusual even for the WDS program. Mason said he obtained a special Cultural Educational Harvest Permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which allows for the harvest of game animals for educational reasons.
Tim Spivey with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said about 30-40 such permits are issued each year, mostly to schools and villages. Most are for moose, though a few are for caribou or deer; black bears, fur bearers and even mountain goats can be harvested, but Spivey said there are strict conditions on the permits.
“We don’t just issue these Cultural Education Permits to anyone,” he said.
Applicants must fill out an online application and must propose a systematic program that can teach students aspects of traditional Alaska practical knowledge and values. Any harvest may not result in a significant reduction in populations or take away opportunities from other hunters. Once Mason’s permit was received, Spivey said he contacted Tim Peltier, the area management biologist for the Mat-Su area, to see if harvest was possible.
“He told me we didn’t have a concern with them taking an additional moose,” Spivey said.
Limits were placed on the type of moose Mason could shoot: it had to be an antlerless moose and couldn’t be a calf or a cow with a calf. After killing the moose, Mason was also required to submit a report to Peltier including the age, sex, specific harvest location and who shot the moose. Spivey said Mason will also be required to file a report 30 days after the hunt detailing the educational or cultural program activities that took place and other pertinent details or problems encountered.
Spivey said the program is a way of allowing educators and elders to use Alaska’s game populations to pass on cultural traditions and practices related to hunting and gathering in the state.
“Those aspects are huge for Alaska,” he said.
Finding and shooting the animal wasn’t easy. Due to low snow conditions, Mason said it took him three weekends of hunting before he finally shot the young cow moose in a swampy area near Willow.
“The goal was to also learn the skinning and quartering process, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to get the moose out of the woods whole,” he said.
However, the students were able to learn how to debone, trim and process the meat in a clean and safe way. That meant giving them a brief lesson on moose anatomy before handing out gloves and 4-inch deboning knives to start cutting under the supervision of Mason and a couple parent volunteers.
“If you wouldn’t want it on your steak, you don’t want it on the meat,” he told them.
Mason said he was initially worried about how his students would react to the lesson, which required them to both deal with graphic subject matter and be responsible with dangerous tools. But once the cutting started, the class became silent, focused and extremely occupied with the task at hand.
“They’re all being super safe and responsible and frankly they’re really engaged,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how some students would really deal with the process of getting their hands on a dead animal, that can be an off-putting experience for some students, but I’ve been really impressed with them.”
Student Reuben Dobson said students understood the trust Mason was putting in them by allowing them to use the sharp knives in class.
"I think our teacher knew we’re here to learn and we weren’t going to be stupid,” he said.
There were some squeamish moments early in the lesson. While showing the students how to separate the moose’s hoof from the rest of its leg, Mason warned there would be a somewhat sickening sound -- then demonstrated that sound by snapping the hoof off with a loud crack. Some students squirmed in their seats.
“Talk about a wake-up call,” said student Jasmine McLean.
McLean said the moment gave her pause.
“You think it’s going to be okay and then you do that and it’s like, ‘It’s not going to be that easy,’” she said.
However, once McLean started cutting she proved a fast learner, probing through cartilage and meat as she expertly cut meat from bone.
“It’s easier to process once you get more into it,” she said.
As the lesson wore on, students sat at tables removing fat, tendons, bone, hair and any dirt or debris from the meat. With so many working on the animal, the butchering actually went remarkable fast.
“I need this many people to help with my moose,” quipped Chugiak vice principal Ben Johrendt, one of several curious administrators and teachers who popped into the classroom throughout the day.
After butchering the meat, the students then ground some and packaged steaks using equipment donated by Alaska Butcher Supply. He said students processed about 200 pounds of moose meat, some of which they’ll cook and eat at a special dinner and the rest which will be donated to charity.
Mason said he thinks turning his class into a temporary slaughterhouse was a success. In addition to learning more about animal anatomy, his students also an immersive experience in Alaska culture and traditions.
“I think that certain experiences you can’t really learn from a textbook.”