The 4,200 residents of Barrow, Alaska, cheerfully call it “the top of the world.” But it takes a very special type of person to live there.
The northernmost city in the United States, coastal Barrow is a windswept place where the temperature rises above freezing only 120 days a year. Polar night lasts from mid November until late January, inspiring films including vampire horror flick 30 Days of Night. Food is so expensive to fly in that 95 percent of the people—most of them Iñupiat Eskimo—rely on hunting seal, polar bear, waterfowl, walrus, caribou, and fish.
The high school in Barrow serves the entire North Slope, but still has an enrollment of only 186 in its four grades. That turns out to be enough to field the nation’s northernmost football team, the Whalers, which plays on blue artificial turf. Yet more than 40 percent of the students score below proficient on standardized tests in science, and more than 35 percent score below proficient in math. Fewer than two thirds of student graduate on time, compared to the national average of 75 percent.
So when Victor Charoonsophonsak showed huge promise in science and math, his parents decided to pick up and move from Barrow to Anchorage. That’s Alaska’s biggest city, with 300,000 people, but it also has something rare among the remote towns and villages of this beautiful but sparsely populated state: high school engineering programs.
“A rural place like Barrow is basically a village, and you know almost everybody,” Charoonsophonsak says. “It didn’t seem like such a barren place to me, because I was used to it. But you just don’t have the resources there. The opportunities and the knowledge would not have been equivalent to what I can do in Anchorage.”
Facing a looming gulf between the demand for engineers and their supply, Alaska is trying to improve education in science, technology, engineering, and math. And that’s a goal that makes similar efforts in the Lower 48 look like easy sledding.
“Our challenge is geography,” says Todd Bergman, director of the Alaska Process Industries Career Consortium, or APICC. “It’s not just that we’re a big state. We’re isolated from the rest of the country.”
There will be 8,100 STEM-related job openings in Alaska by 2018, according to APICC, most at the oil, gas, and mining companies that fuel the state’s economy. Yet fewer than two percent of high school students there have access to a daily STEM curriculum. Only 14 Alaska schools are part of Project Lead the Way, the preeminent STEM program, out of 5,200 nationwide.
Long-disjointed efforts by government, industry, the University of Alaska, and other groups are now beginning to coalesce into a coordinated policy to change this. Twenty Alaska high schools have been designated “engineering academies,” offering electives including automation, robotics, and digital electronics, and connecting students with engineering internships and mentors.
But progress has been glacial. Just training teachers in these subjects requires flying them to California, North Carolina, or Washington State. Then, when they leave—and teacher turnover in Alaska is high—the process has to start again.
“A lot of these villages are cut off from major population centers and the winters are very long,” says Zachary Mannix, APICC’s coordinator of the Alaska engineering academies. While teachers in other states can go to the local hardware store to pick up PVC tubes for a class project, many in Alaska can’t.
Also, Mannix says, school resources “are going to a lot of other things—the cost of transportation, heating fuel. Some of the schools don’t have broadband Internet. It’s hard to tell a middle-school student in those places that if they take these classes now they can become an electrical engineer someday and make a lot of money.”
But the emphasis on engineering education in Alaska is making some strides. Robotics competitions for example are attracting students to the subject. So is teaching that uses real-world problems. Mannix tells of visiting a classroom in which students were learning how to lengthen their smartphone charging cords.
“The sample size is small, but there are absolutely kids you know are going to be very, very successful,” he says. “You see it when you go in at the end of a day and students are staying after school to work on their projects.”
The University of Alaska in Anchorage is negotiating with Project Lead the Way to provide in-state teacher training. And teachers who have gone off to be trained somewhere else are attacking the problem with enthusiasm.
Wade Roach, who teaches at Dimond High School in Anchorage, designed his classroom to look like Tony Stark’s lab in the Iron Man comic books, with remote-controlled blinds, glass partitions, a 3D printer, and other cool stuff.
Out of 160 students who are in his school’s engineering program at any given time, 15 will make it all the way to graduation, Roach says.
That’s still a drop in the bucket. But, he says, “Every little bit helps.”
As for Victor Charoonsophonsak, he got a scholarship to Washington State University in Pullman, where he’s studying mechanical engineering.
He says he misses Alaska. But he is thinking of becoming an aeronautical engineer, for which there isn’t much demand at home.
Still, says Charoonsophonsak, “There are a lot of students who went through the same exact course that I did, and a lot of them are staying in Anchorage and going to school there. And that’s a great sign for Alaska.”
Photo courtesy of Wade Roach, Dimond High School