It’s a question we’ve all been asked: what do you want to be when you grow up? To have an answer, you often have to know the possibilities. For the first time, Alaska Native students were able to see the range of possibilities within fisheries and wildlife in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta through a decades old science, technology, engineering, and math program.
“You’re not supposed to rip the whole branch off,” Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Patrick Jones jokingly told a group of middle school students as they chomped off some willow tips in Bethel's sandpit. They were taking an unconventional spin on an old study called a “Moose Browse.”
"Oh, that's sour!" said Anchorage eighth grader Anna Hyer, wrenching her face.
Carrying measuring sticks and calipers, state wildlife biologists taught the students how to calculate the amount of food available for moose in order to estimate the size of the potential moose population and the number that can be harvested.
The middle schoolers are the first class to attend a Career STEM Exploration Academy outside of Anchorage with the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, or ANSEP.
“The theme for this career exploration was fisheries and wildlife, so it seemed like the perfect place,” explained Beth Spangler, the National Partnership Director for ANSEP. “There’s a lot of subsistence use in this region, obviously. We were just able to pull in a variety of different types of researchers, scientists, and biologists who were able to explore the ideas with the students of having a STEM career in one of those fields.”
All of the students had attended a previous ANSEP academy in Anchorage, and most of the students are from the region.
“It’s overwhelming, because I didn’t know that they had so many careers here in Bethel," said Bethel eighth grader Briana Henry. "I knew there was Fish and Game, but I learned more about what they do and how they control the environment.”
Scientists from multiple agencies and organizations from around the region participated.
UAA college student Kelsey Penaruk is an ANSEP Youth Peer Mentor from Chefornak, a community where people haul water and use honey buckets. She initially majored in civil engineering to help bring piped water and sewage to her community. But after working more with ANSEP and interning with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Penaruk is changing her major to environmental science and biology.
“To me, my environment and our animals are more important than having running water," she explained. "Because we’ve been living without that for this long, and we can go longer. But we can’t really wait on the animals and the land.”
In Bethel, Penaruk cuts salmon as she studies fisheries while speaking Yugtun with elders. ANSEP’s goal is helping students find a career path in a STEM field.
“I feel like I’ve heard a lot of students say, ‘There’s not many jobs for me here. I think I’m going to stay in Anchorage.’ And I don’t think that’s necessarily the case," said Janessa Esquible, fisheries biologist for the Bethel ONC Tribe. “I think this program is a good example of that in which we have many locals working within fisheries and wildlife.”
Esquible hopes that these students can follow paths to careers leading home to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.