Revised curriculum educates about oil spill prevention and response

Outreach Coordinator

During the summer of 2012, the council hosted a workshop with environmental education professionals from all over Southcentral Alaska, pooling the best oil spill education programs in one place. Katie Gavenus, an environmental educator from Homer, was chosen by the council’s Information and Education Committee to put new activity ideas and the best of the original curriculum together. The resulting 2014 K-12 Oil Spill Curriculum will help today’s students understand the history and science of oil spills in Alaska.

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Alaska students reflect on effects of oil spills

This summer, ten students embarked on the 2014 Copper River Stewardship Program, taking 8 days to explore the Copper River watershed via raft, canoe, feet, van and ferry. Through this program, the Copper River Watershed Project wanted to help youth see themselves as active members of a united watershed community. A common theme of the program is “we all live downstream,” –what happens in any part of the watershed affects the whole.
The program taught the students about the 1989 spill, the ecological aftermath, and how it influenced communities, the industry, and the politics of the region. Students worked with guest teacher Jack Dalton to write “creative non-fiction” capturing their experiences and impressions. The following are excerpts from students.
–Kate Morse, Copper River
Watershed Project

Takodah Veach
Takodah Veach, Copper Center

“The point of this program to me is that we need to keep the land, and especially the watershed, pristine. It’s simple things like picking up trash or big things like trying to clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill.”

-Takodah Veach, Copper Center

Ethan Castillo, Elvie Underwood, and Kobe Pence
Ethan Castillo, Elvie Underwood, and Kobe Pence

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Experience in Sound ignites educators’ passion to pass on environmental stewardship

By Elly Ray
Seward, Alaska

Participants in the Teacher expedition class pose in front of a glacier.
Participants in the teacher expedition class pose in front of a glacier.

When the 1989 oil spill happened in Prince William Sound, I remember being horrified about it and doing my share of finger pointing. Yet, in no way did I even begin to understand the impact it had on Alaskans and their way of life. As a 28-year-old Pennsylvanian, it fit my notions of environmental degradation, and that’s where it stopped.

Appreciating Alaska for its lifestyle and pure beauty only began when I moved here in 2005. As I developed friendships and began exploring the great land with my children and my spouse, I began to understand the subsistence culture I had joined—but my understanding leapt this summer through an amazing experience I shared with several teachers in Prince William Sound. Now the oil spill creates in me a strong drive to be proactive about protecting this wonderful place we live.

Can we measure the passion Alaskan youth have for Alaska? Could they possibly be taking the beauty and way of life for granted? Can we trust them yet as we pass the torch of protecting our land and way of life to them? Their young lives have not been interrupted by a major earthquake, tsunami, or oil spill of the Exxon Valdez magnitude. While they partake in the lifestyle, do they have a deep understanding of its vulnerability?

Instructor Tim Lydon leads class beside the glaciers in Barry Arm.
Instructor Tim Lydon leads class beside the glaciers in Barry Arm.

This is where my July adventure in Prince William Sound ties it all together for me. Under the thoughtful guidance of Betsi Oliver, from Alaska Geographic, and Tim Lydon, of the USFS, six Alaskan teachers, one San Francisco teacher, and one UAF journalism student camped, kayaked, and studied together for one week in the Nellie Juan Wilderness Area of Prince William Sound. During that time, we shared amazing experiences.

We attended class led by Lydon while watching a seal spy on us from the shoreline, and a whistle pig get comfortably close to us on the boulders where we sat. We ate gourmet food prepared by Oliver, as we chatted about the Native Alaskans who slept on the same wilderness shores we visited, and the gold miners and explorers who called this their home many years ago. We joked that we’d traded in our computers and smartphones for glacier TV: “Ohhhhhhhhh! Did you see that one?” and “Wow that was a huge piece that fell off. Did you hear it crash?” We slept with the chill from the nearby glaciers, forcing us deeper into our mummy bags. We paddled through still waters that reflected the snow-capped mountains and floated for hours in our kayaks near several tidewater glaciers. We felt disgusted when we learned how there is still oil from the spill just under the surface on many beaches. I believe I can safely speak for all of us when I say that we came away with a determination to make a difference, having been changed forever by the closeness we felt with Alaska during our trip.

Paddling through the Nellie Juan Wilderness Area in Prince William Sound.
Paddling through the Nellie Juan Wilderness Area in Prince William Sound.

I’m an Alaskan elementary school teacher, and now I fully grasp my responsibility. To make a difference, I must provide experiences for my students that leads them to understand how it will be their job as they get older to protect our precious natural resources—the water, plants, and animals—and the lifestyle that so many Alaskans depend upon. I must ignite their passion so it burns as brightly as mine does now. My wish is that environmental degradation is not simply a catch phrase on my students’ lips. Instead, it needs to propel them into action to prevent ruin from ever touching our shores again.

Homer students present program on effects of oil spills

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.

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