Studying the sea: How one Mt. Edgecumbe educator works to prepare students for life

SPONSORED: Finding students’ interests and passions drive them to explore beyond the classroom.

For more than 20 years, BP has been recognizing Alaska's exceptional teachers—like Michael Mahoney—through the BP Teachers of Excellence program. Since 1995, the company has honored nearly 700 educators for their dedication to teaching and inspiring students. Nominations for this year's awards are open until Feb. 1; the program is also accepting submissions for the new Educational Allies Award, which celebrates the unsung heroes in Alaska's schools, such as principals, teaching assistants and other staff members.

It all started more than 20 years ago in Ron Doubt's biology classroom at Kodiak High School. For Michael Mahoney, a lifelong Alaskan, something clicked. The class was interesting and funny. Mahoney still remembers it. Doubt was a "great teacher"one who set him on the path toward a career in education.

"I just decided then, 'I'm going to be that guy when I grow up,'" Mahoney said.

Fast-forward to the present, and he is. After two decades at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Mahoney's vision is clear.

"My job is to prepare students for life," he said. Beyond the lesson plan and the syllabus, Mahoney aims to teach his students how to be independent thinkers and learners, which is why he was awarded a BP Teachers of Excellence award. After a 20-year career at Mt. Edgecumbe, Mahoney is one of several dozen Alaska teachers being recognized and is receiving the award for his "dedication to teaching and for inspiring students."

After school, he's the head volleyball coach. During the day, his classes include everything from organic chemistry to biology, environmental science and a class focused on the history of the school. Mt. Edgecumbe, established nearly 70 years ago by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is a public boarding school that hosts more than 400 students from more than 100 communities around Alaska. In Sitka, these students have an additional opportunity they can't find anywhere else in the state: a special Sea-Tech Internship offered in partnership with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, California.

"It's an amazing programwe have a partnership with the Whale Acoustics Lab at Scripps," Mahoney said.

Through the program, Mt. Edgecumbe students have access to high frequency acoustic recording packages directly from the Scripps lab. They analyze the high-pitched cries of bearded seals, the whistles of beluga whales, the songs of bowheads and other mysterious underwater sounds. The internship focuses primarily on the Arctic, a region many Mt. Edgecumbe students call home.

"It's a wonderful experience," Mahoney said. "It's wonderful for our students to have this opportunity."

Throughout his career as a teacher, Mahoney said, he's seen plenty of experts come into classrooms and lecture students about all the steps they need to take to one day do the work. The Scripps internship takes a different approach. Students are challenged to dive in right away and undertake real scientific study, and the opportunity often sparks real, deep curiosity. Sea-Tech interns have presented their work at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium and to the Whale Acoustics Lab, and they have co-authored a paper published in the Arctic scientific journal, Mahoney said.

The internship started with a twist of serendipity more than 10 years ago, when a scientist from the Scripps lab happened to be on a charter fishing trip with another teacher from Mt. Edgecumbe, Mahoney said. They got to talking.

"The next thing you knew, two of us were on an airplane down to San Diego, and that's where the program started," Mahoney said. "From there on out, we've done some pretty amazing stuff."

After launching in 2006, the internship had just two students. Now there are 18. Even if they don't chose to pursue careers in oceanography or marine biology after high school, Mahoney said, he hopes the hands-on scientific experience prepares them to tackle all the other challenges they'll encounter along the way. In all of his classes, he said, he aims to build happy kids with a love of learning.

"I think that's my most important job," he said.

The key? A big part of it, he said, is teaching to students' interests. Like with the organic chemistry class he started teaching more than a decade ago at the request of two students who had their sights set on a career in the medical field. They came in at 7 a.m., three days a week, just so Mahoney could teach them organic chemistry. They earned zero credits. Once they'd completed the course, Mahoney approached the Mt. Edgecumbe administration about offering a formal organic chemistry course at the school. Today, the class draws about a dozen students every semester. One of the two original students went on to become a clinical pharmacist in Fairbanks, Mahoney said. "So, it worked!"

Teaching is difficult. Getting students to engage with difficult scientific subjects can be even harder. The key?

"I think to myself, as long as I'm happy and passionate about what I do, I can get the kids to be happy and passionate in the classroom," Mahoney said.

It seems to be working. The vast majority of Mt. Edgecumbe students go on to accept positions in postsecondary educational institutions or training programs. Some of Mahoney's former Sea-Tech interns have gone on to study at the University of California, San Diego; some have gone on to accept jobs at the Whale Acoustics Lab itself.

Next year, Mahoney wants to do more.

"I believe in continual improvement, and I try to make sure I learn something new every year, and I do something new every year," he said.

Winning another volleyball state championship wouldn't hurt, either.

This article was produced by the creative services department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with BP. Contact the creative services editor, Jamie Gonzales, at The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.