Students in the Science Mentor Program gain valuable knowledge of the local environment by conducting ecological research studies one-on-one with professional scientists. This program is excellent preparation for post-secondary studies and gives students a glimpse of where ecological science careers can take them. Individual students work with their professional mentors to develop, implement, and report on a research study that addresses a pertinent ecological question in the local Sitka area. This year, student projects include bird banding around Sitka and testing whether Starrigavan valley has a microclimate significantly different from downtown Sitka's.
This program is a cooperative effort between the Sitka School District, Sitka Conservation Society, University of Alaska Southeast, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Forest Service.
Visiting Forest Service Wildlife Technician, Gwen Baluss carefully loosens the tie of a little sac and slowly reaches in. Delicately grasping the fragile creature within, she reveals the dark eyed junco to a resounding “AWE” echoing across the classroom as students pile on top of one another to get a closer look.
For the third year in a row, Baluss has returned to Sitka to continue studying and teaching the community about bird ecology. While juncos and other songbirds may frequent our feeders and whistle familiar songs during our afternoon strolls, there is still ample mystery to these birds. Scientists and land managers know relatively little about their range, distribution and migration ecology for one. Secondly, very few of us have been lucky enough to encounter our skittish feathered friends up close. As one of the participants ruefully commented, “The closest I’ve ever been to one of these birds has been sweeping away the unfortunate remains the cat dragged in.” “Don’t worry,” she facetiously reassured the bird banding team, “This will be my last cat.”
Last week, Blatchley middle school students, Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary classes, Sitka High students and the Sitka Conservation Society’s (SCS) 4-H program experienced a more pleasant close encounter with our beloved song birds. In the frosted garden behind Blatchley Middle school, Baluss and Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Director with the Sitka Conservation Society carefully and delicately untangle tiny trapped birds from the mist nets. Baluss bands their legs and the team begin taking measurements. Gwen’s enthusiasm for these often overlooked natural wonders peaks as she explains to wide-eyed students how the sheen of a junco’s eyes changes with age from gray to red, how males boast darker plumage atop their heads and how a surprising diversity between individual juncos exists if you just take the time to look carefully. Captivated students edge closer as she starts blowing tenderly on the bird’s belly to reveal yellow fat deposits visible beneath their paper-thin skin. The classroom is fully engaged.
Southeast Alaska offers diverse opportunities for scientific inquiry and exploration just a few yards from the school door. With the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest as our backyard, children here grow up immersed in this outstanding landscape. Experiences like Gwen’s visit, encourage our youth to approach exploring the environment from an academic or potentially career-driven perspective. Students continue to steward this project throughout the year. In the past, a Sitka High School student Naquioa Bautista, working with the Science Mentor Program coordinated by SCS, based her science fair project on studying the banded bird’s movement. From Naquoia’s study, we learned that Sitka’s winter juncos do not stray very far from their banding sites. On the back wall of Ms. Dick’s 6th grade science classroom, a modern twist on the infamous ‘wanted poster’ is displayed, showing each tagged bird and their band color combination. Students, families and all of Sitka’s residents are encouraged to keep a lookout for tagged birds on their feeders or fluttering about on the trails (please report sightings here).
This week, a few lucky students were given a particularly memorable experience. After a bit of fumbling, the student’s tiny hands encapsulated the virtually weightless fragile feathered mess, their tiny heartbeat pumping against the student’s palm. After taking a knee, the top hand would slowly lift and in an instant burst of energy, the birds would return to the trees of our backyards leaving only tiny soft floating feathers in the air and grins of admiration across each onlooker’s face.
This project is supported by the University of Alaska Southeast’s Natural History Seminar Series, the Sitka Charitable Trust, the Sitka Conservation Society and UAS Biology professor Kitty LaBounty. Gwen Baluss is a biologist with the US Forest Service in the Juneau Ranger District and a member of Juneau’s Audobon Society. Please report any banded bird sightings to [email protected] or report to the Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network (SALMoN) . To learn more about Sitka’s 4-H program including how to enroll visit our 4-H page.
The Student Science Sharing night last Monday, April 29 was a huge success. This was our second year of celebrating student learning in the ecological sciences. We had over 100 students and community members participate, and we had student projects from Sitka and Mt. Edgecumbe High Schools, Blatchley Middle School, and Keet Gooshi Heen.
This event is more than just a science fair. It's an opportunity for the community and students to interact and share learning on topics that affect the long-term sustainability of our community. We are surrounding by public lands and depend upon the bounty of the sea and land to sustain our quality of life. Integrating community, young people, scientists, and natural resource managers in a shared learning experience will help ensure that we make well-informed decisions about managing these resources. The Science Night was the culmination of the work of many people and organizations. It was supported by Sitka Conservation Society, University of Alaska Southeast, Sitka Sound Science Center, Sitka School District and Mt. Edgecumbe High School. But the people that did most of the work were the students!
The Science Mentor Program is accepting applications for the 2013/2014 school year. This is the third year of this highly popular and successful program. Last year, students studied wintering songbirds in Sitka and conducted genetic research on the decline of Alaska yellow cedar. Students from any of Sitka's 3 high schools are encouraged to apply. We will also have an informational meeting at Sitka High School, May 7, 1145am to 1220pm. Follow the links below for a program description and application. Contact Scott Harris at [email protected] for more information.
Want to learn more about the genetics of Alaska yellow cedar or intertidal beetles, marine mammal bioacoustics, winter song bird hangouts, the effects of forest thinning on deer habitat, and stream chemistry?
The Second Annual Sitka Science Sharing Night from 7-8:30 p.m. on Monday, April 29, at the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka Campus Room 229 will highlight the work by several student scientists from Sitka schools, including projects conducted through the Science Mentoring program. During the past school year, these students have been active stewards of our local forest, freshwater and marine ecosystems by developing and conducting their own research studies.
The Sitka Science Sharing Night gives these students a chance to share with the general public about their projects. It will be set up just like a poster session at a scientific conference, and the students will be available to share their work and answer questions.
This event features students from Sitka High School, Mt. Edgecumbe High School, Blatchley Middle School, and Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School. Student projects are funded by the Sitka Charitable Trust, the National Forest Foundation, and the Bio-Prep Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The Sitka Science Sharing Night is a joint project of the Sitka Conservation Society, Sitka Sound Science Center, UAS Sitka Campus, Sitka School District, and Mt. Edgecumbe High School. For more information, contact Kitty LaBounty at 738-0174 or Scott Harris at [email protected]
Attention all bird enthusiasts and nature-lovers! 97 birds with various sorts of colored leg bands have been spotted in Sitka. We need your help in recording sightings of these birds!
The weekend before Thanksgiving, certified bird bander Gwen Baluss, Sitka High student Naquoia Bautista, and many volunteers banded Juncos, Chickadees, and Sparrows. Naquoia is participating in the Science Mentor Program. She will be conducting a study of the habits of wintering songbirds in Sitka. Her project relies on local bird enthusiasts and folks with bird-feeders to look out for her color-banded birds. If you would like to help, download and print the observation form here. You can also record observations on the internet at this link. If you have questions, contact Scott Harris at [email protected] or call 738-4091.
Three Sitka High School students were recently chosen to participate in the Science Mentor Program for the 2012-2013 school year. Program Coordinator Scott Harris and UAS Professor Kitty LaBounty stand with students Kaya Duguay, Naquoia Bautista, and Melea Roman. Kaya and Melea will be working on a cedar genetics study and Naquoia will be working on a winter songbird study.
When I was 21, I headed to the Sierra Nevadas for two months as a part of my forestry degree, studying the scientific and professional dimensions of forest and wildland resource management. I received training in simple field orienteering principles, ran transects, cruised timber, and assessed the ecological conditions around Quincy, California. Being out at Starrigavan this past Friday with SCS's Scott Harris and Kitty LaBounty and Foresters Chris Leeseberg and Craig Bueler, I felt nostalgic as we also ran transects, assessed forests for deer habitat, and sampled gaps for regeneration of herbaceous layers however there was something quite different about this experience—instead of university peers, we were working with students from Sitka High whose ages ranged from 15 to 19.
The Forest Team emerged unofficially three years ago as an occasional field trip opportunity to Starrigavan and False Island in Kent Bovee's Field Science course, yet there is talk of having the program adopted into the curriculum for Sitka High's Life Science course. This would guarantee every 10th grader field-based instruction on forest and wildland resource management topics in the hopes that these students will develop a better understanding of public stewardship and what this stewardship means for the forests that sustain us.
What these students get to learn in the field is an experience many of us do not have until college. I watched the teachers hand off GPSs to the students, while the three stations they visited—the riparian stream station, the gap station, and the quick cruise station—equipped the students with transects, compasses, a plot mapper, and prisms to come up with data needed to assess the health of riparian and forest habitats. The gap vegetation monitoring the students did will eventually turn into a long term study about understory plant regeneration and will be published with the intent to spread awareness on the importance thinned forests have for growing winter deer food.
Streams and forests together determine the health of Tongass watersheds. Sharing knowledge through field-based instruction gives high school students a clearer, scientific understanding of what goes on in the woods and also sheds light on career opportunities they could have as Tongass stewards.
On May 1, students from the Science Mentor Program, Sitka High Field Science Class, and Mt. Edgecumbe High School shared their research with the community. Nearly 50 people attended. Standing room only! Students projects included research in microbial fungal communities in young growth forests, vegetation mapping to target wildlife habitat restoration prescriptions, whale acoustics and more! Through these annual programs, Sitka youth are engaging in ecological research, resource management, and are learning to become active stewards of our local environment.
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The future of the Tongass National Forest will be intimately tied to how engaged our communities are in its sustainable management. The Science Mentor Program involves Sitka youth in hands-on scientific research that explores important ecological questions regarding forest restoration. Listen to the Raven Radio story about how Sitka High student Justine Webb and UAS professor Kitty LaBounty are using genetic lab techniques to examine soil fungal communities in young growth forests. Check out the story at the link below.