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GeoFORCE Alaska brings students to Grand Canyon


Barrow high school student Cynthia Kim knew it was called the Grand Canyon, but she didn't understand the landmark's immensity until she looked into it and couldn't see the end.

"That’s why I love geology” said Kim, who visited the Grand Canyon during a geologic field trip with GeoFORCE Alaska, an outreach program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “I can learn different things everywhere. Geology brings you to all different places of the world and nowhere is the same.”

Kim would know. Her starting point is the city of Barrow, where Alaska’s northern coastline meets the Beaufort Sea and provides habitat for caribou, polar bears and remote communities that only small airplanes can access year-round.

Her eighth-grade science teacher encouraged her to apply for a free program that promised to take her places. First, she would explore the geological marvels tucked in her backyard, the state of Alaska. Then, there would be a road trip on the ribbon of asphalt that connects the red deserts and canyons of Nevada, Utah and Arizona. Next would come the volcanoes and lava-imbued features of Washington, after which she would travel to the gentle rolling blue mountains of Appalachia.

The 10-day field trips would cover each region and unfold over the course of four summers starting from before Kim entered ninth grade until the summer before her senior year. Accompanying these natural wonders would be professors, students and staff from UAF who would help Kim interpret her landscape in geologic terms.

Kim is one of 24 students participating in GeoFORCE Alaska, which is housed in UAF’s College of Natural Science and Mathematics. The students are from rural communities in northern Alaska, where high schools serve a high percentage of minorities.

UAF associate professor Sarah Fowell is an instructor on the trips and said she wants the students to gain a voice in science and mathematics.

“We need these students,” she said. “They have diverse interests, opinions and perspectives that can help move science forward.”

Fowell, who is also a chair of UAF’s Department of Geology and Geophysics, said that GeoFORCE Alaska aims to interest rural and minority students in science and mathematics and help students explore careers in those fields. A long-term goal is that some of these students will enter and increase the diversity of the science and mathematics workforce.

The trips also prepare students for the rigors of college-level learning. Every day, students gain field experience, attend daily lectures, study in groups and take a quiz. To remain in the program, students must pass an exam at the end of the field trip with at least an 80 percent and maintain A's and B's in their high school math and science classes. This year’s group all passed the exam with an average of 88.6 percent.

Jerry Brower, a high school student from Nuiqsut Village, said the hardest part of the program was getting up at 5 a.m., but that he always enjoyed the day that followed, even if was a sweltering 114 degrees. When a friend told Brower he was applying for the program, “I kept calling [him] a nerd for doing this, but it’s cool. You meet a lot of people and do a lot of fun things.”

Brower got to meet his Texas counterparts in the GeoFORCE Texas program, when the two programs mingled on a day trip to a canyon. GeoFORCE Alaska is an expansion of the Texas program, which started in 2005 and engages rural and minority students from South Texas and inner-city Houston. Several hundred students have completed the program, with all of them graduating high school and nearly all of them going on to college. Currently, 268 GeoFORCE Texas alumni are enrolled in over 50 colleges and universities throughout Texas and the US with nearly two-thirds of them majoring in science, technology, engineering or math fields.

Teresa Imm, the vice president of resource development for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, said she’s glad UAF adapted the Texas program to Alaska. ASRC is owned by and represents Inupiat Eskimos living in eight communities along the North Slope, where students in GeoFORCE Alaska are from. Imm said ASRC sponsors the Alaska program because it helps students get real-world career experience and overcome the hurdles of living in a remote area with a high cost of living.

These students may also open the eyes of other science and math professionals. Imm said they come from communities that value traditional knowledge and pass down observations of the land and its animals from one generation to the next.

“These students have experiences that can only enhance science,” she said.

GeoFORCE Alaska hopes to expand in 2014 by recruiting 40 eighth and ninth grade students from Northern Alaska for a new class. The program, which is privately funded through monetary and in-kind donations, is also looking to increase the number of sponsors.

Although the first student group in GeoFORCE Alaska still has two years to go, Cynthia Kim said the program is already changing things for her. First, Barrow seems a lot colder after her trip to the warm southwest where she enjoyed quite a bit of swimming. Second, she notices a lot more about her hometown’s geology when she takes walks with friends along the rocky shoreline – like sediment layers and the erosion.

Kim said while she’s thinking of becoming a geologist, there’s a more immediate goal on her horizon. She can’t wait to be a GeoFORCE counselor so she can inspire more kids to gain a voice in science and math.

“We do need really different types of minds with different ideas to change the world – not just one type of mindset,” she said. “You need arguing and discussions to broaden the world.”

Sponsors include Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, ASRC Energy Services, ExxonMobil, Granite, Great Bear Petroleum, LLC, Halliburton, Olgoonik, Schlumberger, Shell, SolstenXP and Statoil.

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