Homer students present program on effects of oil spills

By JESSICA RYAN
Kachemak Bay Research Reserve

At the Homer oil spill Discovery Lab, a Homer student demonstrates the use of absorbents to soak up oil.
A Homer student demonstrates the use of absorbents to soak up oil.

Fifth and sixth grade students from Fireweed Academy, a charter school in Homer, created the first ever student-led public Discovery Lab program on the topic of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, titled “25 Years After the Spill”.

Fireweed Academy students are known to engage in the old adage “learn by doing.” The students learned about the effects the Exxon Valdez oil spill by researching the history of the spill and its subsequent impacts to Alaska’s wildlife and human communities. Kachemak Bay Research Reserve educator Catie Bursch and Fireweed Academy principal/teacher Kiki Abrahamson, and teacher Kris Owens guided the students.

Bursch, Abrahamson and Owens encouraged students to interview their parents and others who lived through the spill, and to use the web to find information about the lasting impacts of the spill. The students then developed written content, activities and games to convey this information to the public; advertised the event; and presented the information at the public Discovery Lab on February 5.

Fireweed Academy students with a mock spill worker dressed in protective garb.
Fireweed Academy students with a mock spill worker dressed in protective garb.

Students posted flyers and notified parents and friends. They set a goal to have the highest attendance ever at a winter Discovery Lab. The public responded with enthusiasm, and on the day of the event the Discovery Lab classroom at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center was buzzing with participants. 125 visitors walked in the door in addition to the 24 students, setting a new winter attendance record!

In preparation for the big event, students set up and ran through the lab with 60 Fireweed Academy students in grades 3 and 4 at their school. The colorful, hands-on displays included:

  • Demonstrations of oil dispersal and cleanup methods
  • A life-sized oil spill worker with appropriate safety gear and symptoms of what could happen if the gear wasn’t used
  • A wildlife recovery matching game
  • Information about different kinds of oil and oil dispersants.

To test student comprehension, Research Reserve education coordinator Jessica Ryan conducted a six-question pre-test in November, before students began this project, and a post-test with the same six questions at the conclusion of the February program. The improvement in test scores was dramatic. Before the event, only half of the students could even name the vessel that caused the spill. By the conclusion of the lab, all of the students knew not only that the Exxon Valdez had caused the spill, but the date of the spill, how much oil was spilled, and the type of oil spilled. Students learned not only about effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill through their development of the lab activities, but they also focused on improvements to spill prevention and response since that time through activities that taught about double-hulled tankers systems and bioremediation.

At the Homer oil spill Discovery Lab, students demonstrate the effects of wind on oil distribution.
At the Homer oil spill Discovery Lab, students demonstrate the effects of wind on oil distribution.

Fireweed’s Abrahamson felt that this opportunity for students to develop and present their own Discovery Lab program was a worthwhile use of their time and dove-tailed nicely with several of their curriculum goals.

Research Reserve oversight of partnership between the Reserve and the school was made possible thanks to funding support provided by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

Students design remotely operated oil spill response vehicles in Seward ocean science competition

By MARITA KLEISSLER, Education Specialist at Prince William Sound Science Center, and
WIL TUSHAUS, AmeriCorps Member at Prince William Sound Science Center.

The first place winning team from Homer working together to create their ROV.
The first place winning team from Homer working together to create their ROV.

Since 2012, Prince William Sound Science Center educators have taken remotely operated vehicle, known as “ROV,” kits to the Alaska Tsunami Ocean Sciences Bowl in Seward, where teams from across Alaska participated in the ROV Challenge.

This science bowl is a regional competition for Alaska high school students on topics related to the study of the oceans. Winning teams go on to compete against teams from across the United States. The challenge was one part of the bowl.
Students constructed the ROVs out of PVC piping. Bilge pumps were used as motors. To simulate the navigational precision and maneuverability needed for an oil spill cleanup, students maneuvered the ROVs through hula hoops, picked up a neutrally buoyant ring and placed it on an underwater hook, retrieved a beach ball and brought it poolside, and hovered in front of a target.

Teams were judged on how well they completed each task and how well they worked as a team. Homer, Dillingham, and Petersburg teams placed first, second and third, respectively. Everyone had a great time designing, building, and driving their ROV.

“I came here for this,” one student commented, “Thank you very much.”

The ROV Challenge was made possible by funding from the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council and the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, and with the assistance of Cordova High School student volunteers.

Photos by Ryan Johnson.

The Petersburg team cheers as their ROV reaches its goal.
The Petersburg team cheers as their ROV reaches its goal.

Read moreStudents design remotely operated oil spill response vehicles in Seward ocean science competition

Taking the long view – why do we involve youth in our programs?

Community Corner

Lisa Matlock
Lisa Matlock

By LISA MATLOCK
Outreach Coordinator

Since coming on board last year, I have been regularly asked by community members, board members, and even staff: What does youth engagement have to do with “environmentally safe operation of the Alyeska terminal and associated tankers”? This question arises because the council has invested in youth projects focusing on marine stewardship throughout our region. It’s a good question, one which is vital for the future of oil spill prevention and response in our region.

Like it or not, those who remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill firsthand are aging. For many of us 25 years may seem like yesterday, but for the children of the 21st century that sounds like ancient history. Those who responded to the spill, whose lives were forever changed by the spill, are passionate about the work we do for personal reasons. If those of us with that passion do not invest in passing the importance of oil spill prevention and better oil spill response onto the next generation, then we are likely fated to a future involving the sorts of complacencies that contributed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the first place.

We need vigilant future stewards for our region, and the council is helping develop them through our youth projects.

The Youth Involvement project, an initiative of the council’s Information and Education Committee, began three years ago. Through it, we work with partners who deliver marine stewardship education directly to students of all ages and teachers. Our partners take existing ocean-focused curriculum and hands-on activities and pull in oil spill science and oil spill history into those programs. Oil spill prevention and response activities provide a fresh perspective into existing marine education. These programs also help further our goals of increasing public awareness of the spill prevention and response system in Prince William Sound and the potential environmental impacts of the terminal and tanker operations. These activities also help give general marine stewardship education a lesson in reality.

Our newest youth project is a pilot internship program. Through this project, high school and college-level students devote time and effort to specific projects identified as council needs. These students gain valuable career experience along with a deeper understanding of the council mission and its vital work. One of the council’s first interns, Zachary Verfaillie recently completed his project, An Analysis of Fishing Vessel Types and Numbers vs. Response Tactics. Recruitment for 2015 interns will begin in August. If you would like more information about this, please contact me at lisa.matlock@pwsrcac.org.

Over the fall and winter, the council helped sponsor a variety of youth involvement events on Kodiak Island, and in Homer and Seward (see page 5 for more information on these events). The council’s ongoing work to help the next generation become champions for oil spill prevention in our region will continue in spring and summer, the big season for getting kids outside and in touch with their marine backyard.

Upcoming Youth Involvement Events

Spring – Tunicate monitoring and non-indigenous species education, led by Cordova-based intern, Sarah Hoepfner
May & June – Kachemak Bay Onboard Oceanography led by Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies
29 May-7 June – Prince William Sound Kayaking Expedition led by Chugach School District & Alaska Geographic
June – Valdez Marine Science Camps led by the SPACE program
2-30 June – Kodiak Salmon Camps led by Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges
10-15 June – Prince William Sound Teachers Expedition led by Alaska Geographic & Chugach National Forest
12-20 June – Kachemak Bay Teen EcoAdventure Camp led by Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies
16-23 June – Copper River Stewardship Expedition led by Prince William Sound Science Center & Copper River Watershed Project
21-30 June – Prince William Sound Kayaking Expedition led by Alaska Geographic
Summer – Green crab monitoring led by Cordova-based intern, Sarah Hoepfner

Kodiak and Valdez students build remotely controlled vehicles to respond to mock oil spill

Youth Involvement

By MEGAN MILLIGAN
Education Assistant, Prince William Sound Science Center

Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event
Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event

In March, educators from the Prince William Sound Science Center took their Discovery Outreach programs on the road to Kodiak and Valdez. They worked with high school and middle school students, teaching them about remotely operated vehicles, known as ROVs, and the challenges these vehicles face operating in Arctic ecosystems.

An ROV is a tethered underwater robot that can be operated from a boat or from shore. It is a valuable tool for exploring the ocean where it is either too dangerous or expensive for human divers. These vehicles can be used for a wide variety of tasks, including exploring shipwrecks, discovering deep sea animals and assisting with oil spill cleanups.

Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.
Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.

The students learned about the difficulties of operating in the Arctic environment, where hazards include incredibly harsh winters, extended periods of darkness and often unpredictable icepacks. Students then designed and built their own vehicle to respond to a mock oil spill. After splitting into “companies,” each group was given a bag of parts and a controller with three motors. The groups were free to build their own design with only a few restrictions.

Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.
Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.

After building their vehicles, the students migrated to the pool, where the groups tested the buoyancy and balance of their machines. After some adjustments, students were ready to tackle the mock oil spill. The vehicles completed mock tasks such as transporting floating equipment by bringing a beach ball back to the side of the pool, delivering a piece of equipment to an underwater work station by driving through a submerged hula hoop, and taking a sample from a pool of oil in the ice by surfacing the vehicle inside a floating hula hoop. Students got competitive as they raced against the clock, trying to complete as many challenges as possible within the time limit. Groups also received points for good teamwork.

Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.
Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.

One of the most remarkable things was the wide variety of solutions the students came up with. No two vehicles were the same. All of the groups developed different strategies to accomplish the challenges as they were forced to think about new design and engineering problems. The students learned about new forms of technology and how they are being used, while having fun building and testing their own machine.

Students learned cooperation, innovation, communication and other skills which are essential for success in the 21st century. The Prince William Sound Science Center’s Discovery Outreach programs bring these hands-on experiences to communities around Alaska. Students involved with these programs develop into the future’s workforce and problem solvers, able to respond to the challenges of threatened natural resources.

Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.
Students create remotely operated vehicle during PWSSC event.

This outreach program was co-sponsored by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute and the council.