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Local educator travels to Alaska to teach native children science

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Posted at 10:46 PM, Aug 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-19 23:46:48-04

A retired teacher travels thousands of miles almost every summer to teach students he doesn't know.

He's sharing his passion for science and the oceans with some students who live on a small island in the Arctic.

"About 250 people...almost everybody's Inupiat. A lot of them are related to each other. it's got two little grocery stores, about the same size as the houses. it's hard to tell what's what at first glance... no malls, no movie theaters, not a lot entertainment for the kids." Museum director and science teacher Cliff Strain says.

That's one of the reasons the science camp is a hit with the kids. They do some work in the classroom, but there's a lot of hands-on learning out in the field.

"We do water testing,we do water sampling in the lagoon, ground water sampling, we do capture of organisms, we take them out seining." Strain says, "We've got a bunch of waders which is really great because the kids up there don't get in the water very often."

These kids are eager for the opportunity to learn.

"These students are very eager to learn, especially the younger ones." Strain says, "A lot of time we'll go down to do an activity at the lagoon with maybe a dozen kids and we'll come back with 25."

The residents of Kaktovik are Inupiat Indians. They're basically a subsistence society of hunters and fishermen. As an indigenous Eskimo people, they're allowed to hunt.

"They're allowed to kill things we wouldn't be allowed to kill, walrus, belugas when they come in. They're allowed to kill 3 bow-head whales. Although I think they got a big one last year, so i don't know if they killed more than one. and they live off that for the entire winter."

All the whale bones that are left over from the hunts attract polar bears; some of the other residents of barter island, who can some times be a dangerous nuisance.

"Occasionally you see polar bears in town," Strain says, "which is not what you want to see. It makes it a little more dangerous moving around. And when we take kids on field trips we have to have people with high-powered rifles that can take down a polar bear, if they decide they want to eat one of the students."

Fortunately that hasn't happened.

It's a 47-hundred mile trip from Port Aransas to Kaktovik. That's a pretty long haul for a 7-day science camp that only pays a small stipend, but strain says the people of the village have become like family to him, and teaching is an old habit that's hard to break.

"I think it's just really working with the kids, imparting knowledge and seeing the light bulbs go on when they grasp the concept of something they're having difficulty with. And discovering something new together is always a wonderful experience, for both the teacher and the student." Strain says.