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Janet Clarke: Sitka Sound Science Center, WhaleFest 2019 | Science For Everyone | Ep 22 Transcript

Updated: May 17

This week we're continuing our Sitka, Alaska series with the Education Director of the Sitka Sound Science Center! Janet Clarke's job is to help connect the people and students of Sitka to the incredible research that's taking place in their backyards. Listen in as we discuss the programs that the Science Center is currently involved in, as well as the importance of programs like the Sitka WhaleFest celebration!

Some of the whales being celebrated during Sitka Whalefest.

Chance: Welcome everybody to another episode of conservation connection. We're here in Sitka sound and we're very excited because we're sitting across the table with Janet Clark, who is the Education Director at the Sitka Sound Science Center.

Sarah Kathryn: Welcome to the show!

Chance: I would love to start this episode off with, give us a little snapshot of where we are. What is Sitka sound?

Janet: Well, Chance I know that people can't see where we're sitting. Can you believe we're sitting in this windowed gallery looking out from this beautiful building, the Centennial building? We call it the Harrigan Centennial building. Over a channel of the Sitka Sound and it's gorgeous.

Chance: It's absolutely beautiful.

Janet: It is!

Chance: Pretty sure I saw a sea lion a minute ago.

Janet: Absolutely you would have, amongst the eagles and the other kinds of birds and marine mammal life that we see here all the time. You know, I have traveled to a lot of different places in the United States, and each of course has its own aspect of environment and place-based beauty and uniqueness.

That's, you know, you fall in love with anytime you go somewhere else, but there is something about being in archipelago in Southeast Alaska that just is memorable and seeps into you. I think I, uh, an archipelago is a collection, just a mishmash of islands that come along the coast of Southeast coast of Alaska, which some people confuse as being actually part of Canada, right?

We, uh, we truly, our nearest neighbor is Canada, and we are not, most people do have this mistaken impression that all of Alaska has the same kind of climate, snow, ice, long winters and zones over earth. We simply aren't that we are a temperate rain forest, which both parts of that are accurately reflected here.

Our temperatures are temperate. If we, if you are in Sitka, in the um, summer, and it gets to be 70 degrees we complain about a heat wave. How can we stay on this hot? We have to go inside. It's too hot and so on and, so forth. And if you're here in the winter, it's rare that we're actually at freezing.

We, I mean, we have days that are below freezing, but not that many. We tend to, the ocean is such a moderating influence for us here. And it may also be reflected in so many other ways. The ocean is absolutely the biggest influence, the greatest impact in our community life, the ecology, the traditional subsistence efforts here. All of it is about the ocean. I, I just can't explain how important it is to us and not because we are big surfers or although there are people who serve here and not because it's a resort, it's a lifestyle here with the ocean.

Chance: And I think that that's what really struck us when we had opportunity to come out last year and see how incredible this place is, and it just struck us how connected everything is to the ocean, the people, the place, everywhere you look, something is tied to the ocean and it's really pervasive in this community. It's really a beautiful thing.

Janet: Right. I agree. I think yesterday was a great example. Um, somebody was asking about the things they might see on a Marine mammal. cruise, you know, out here on a tour looking for whales and sea lions and the like. And we are speaking about the feeding of whales right now.

And I went into this long explanation about when we were out the day before that we saw whales individually diving for herring it's probably the whale, that herring was at the bottom of the, of the ocean. And you know, it's, and that's when they feed individually like that. If it were up higher, we might be lucky enough to see bubble feeding.

I went into that long explanation and the person I was talking to said. "Do you realize? I was just in the market and I was at the sea salt counter and they just told me the same thing. Does everybody in Sitka know the feeding behavior of whales?" And I thought probably so.

Chance: I love that. That's awesome. It's really great to have a community that is so tied to the science, and that's kind of a big part of what your job is with the Sitka Sound Science Center, right?

Janet: It is. You know, I think when you're a teacher, you're just always a teacher. But as a teacher, um, I, you know, retired from teaching secondary math and science after a long career in doing that and came to Sitka and didn't really, I didn't have an idea that this is a direction that I was going to pick back up again. Although I have to say I was not close to wanting to leave the classroom, and I see that there is an education program at the Sitka Sound Science Center, and I went, Oh, that's interesting.

And then I began thinking about what an amazing opportunity it is for a person to be able to educate from the other side of the classroom door in ways that support teachers in all of the things they would like to do with their students in place based education and in absolutely experiencing the leading edge research that's happening in our community and others like us.

We are the Northern edge of the kelp forest. We are an extraordinary. Place for looking at changing ocean conditions. And so there's lots of great research with many skilled researchers who'd like to tell students about what they're doing. So I'm in this wonderful position of bringing those together with students.

It's great for me, it's very satisfying. And the thing that I notice here is that I have to warn researchers that our kids will generally know more than they anticipate that a kid that age should know. So if you go into first grade, they really will know the intertidal animals. Right. And, and researchers will go, you know, "I'm just afraid that if I did this in my hometown, I'd have no kid who would know the level of, um, of just general Marine ecology or even terrestrial ecology that our students tend to have here."

And I think it's that place-based connection that they have. Also a town that believes, that really believes in both education and research, and they support that in positive ways of looking at that, and there are lifelong learners here. When there is a program in the evening, whatever it is, there are adults here that come. That's what they do for, for fun!

Chance: Learning for fun? What's that?

Sarah Kathryn: That's crazy!

Now, of course, we're here for Whale Fest and we know that the education department at the science center has educational events all throughout the year. Uh, we are very aware that y'all do so much as we were here last year, and we worked specifically with you guys, with your scientists in the schools unit, but could you give us a little bit of an overview of what Whale Fest is, and then we'll dive a little more into the education department's role in WhaleFest.

Janet: I like that. Thanks Sarah, that's, I could go on for quite some time as you know. I think the full circle story we will be able to tell here is about the fact that Whale Fest. 23 years old now, right? In that first four or five, six years, as researchers came to tell their research to the community, in that time, it was a natural extension to say, Oh, well, while some, Oh, so-and-so is here doing acoustic monitoring of humpbacks, why don't we have them go into a high school class and describe that?

You know? So whale Fest was the beginning of a, of our scientists in the schools program, and it was absolutely a way of extending the reach a bit, taking scientists who are already here, placing them in the classroom and, but what happened with that is pretty soon people were going, okay, actually we all know what it looks like for somebody to stop in for a 45 minute long lecture on what they do with their research and walk out again.

And it's the, um, we call it the drive by. Right? And in this case, the scientists would come in, the teacher would say, everybody put your notebooks aside. And they would walk out and the teacher would say, well, now let's get back to work. And they would pull their notebook back to them. There was absolutely so little

Chance: No integration

Janet: Yeah, no integration.

And as Jan Straley often says, we made enough mistakes there to know what we shouldn't do. And one of them was to assume that we needed to only do programs at the high school level. And so that changed the direction as we began thinking about starting at the very earliest grades. And the other one was to assume that the best way to do things is to just pop a scientist in there. That actually isn't the best way, scientists crave being successful in the classroom but when they just get introduced at the door and said, well, go for it, they're not going to be very successful. So the other thing we learned and have developed is that if we at the science center work together and collaboratively with teachers and then with scientists, we craft a program that integrates into the curriculum. Teachers do things leading up to them or extend out from them. They do programs within this time that we have with scientists to support and scaffold teachers and students in terms of understanding, research.

And then we do an activity so that kids are doing what scientists are doing. And that's what makes, I think, an incredibly impactful science in the schools program. So that at, in Sitka, every student from kindergarten through high school has a scientist sometime in the year that works right into the curriculum that exists in their classroom.

And extends out their understandings in ways that are very interactive and absolutely connects what's important to them in this town.

Chance: I want you to say that again because that is an incredible claim. You're able to make that every school, every classroom, every student. Every year sees a scientist.

Janet: That is exactly it. I mean, I sometimes start to say that when I'm telling it somebody, I, all of a sudden I'm going, every student, every class, every grade, every year, and I'm going, wait, I've missed something in there. Because it's like I could keep going every, every, every, you know, but it is an amazing statement to be made.

And that means that the students in the Sitka school district and our, um, we're so fortunate to have this very high quality boarding school that brings in students from all over Alaska. So Mount Edgecumbe high school, there are many opportunities for students to see what is the breadth of science inquiry at this point.

And I feel like if you are in this district, you know about geology, you know about trees, you know about the Marine life, you know about the intertidal life from a scientist's perspective, but also from the integrative knowledge of some of the indigenous understandings that we have as well. And coupled with things like art and other aspects that open up doors to students no matter where their interest is.

Chance: And that's what I was going to say, is that it goes beyond knowing the definition. It's an understanding how that concept or that species or that interaction is integral to every other living thing or non-living thing in this area and how that directly connects to them as someone who lives here.

Janet: Exactly. I think what we're doing with science in the schools is allowing kids to take what they already have understanding with from living here and placing terms and extensions about what they can do in further talking about science or becoming involved themselves. I just think there is many, many times that our science to the schools helps a student frame what they understand already.

Chance: Right? Taking the concept they have and giving them the ability to manipulate it and connect it to other concepts and, and really investigate with it.

Janet: I think so too. And I think it's also it, we have an impact also on teachers and all the positive ways. Not, not a, Hey, we're coming in here and you should learn this, but being another part of the teaching tools that she had that she or he has to be able to say, "oh, the science center, I'll call them. I think we could do something with life cycles. Well, let's talk to them and see how to do that."

Or "we'd really like to connect acoustics of bats and whales together. Let's see if the science center will work with us on something." And I can't tell you how extremely proud I am of that relationship.

Chance: I believe it.

Sarah Kathryn: Yeah. Here at WhaleFest this week, I know that y'all have some college students and some high school students, uh, here for some different programs that you guys are running and they are so busy I don't even feel like I've hardly seen them at all during this week. So could you tell us a little bit about those programs that you guys are running?

Janet: Yup!

WhaleFest, of course, as you know, we tend to use the vocabulary that the symposium is the heart of whale Fest, but it is not the only thing in Whale Fest.

All the other fun events, community events add to it as well, but almost the unseen wheels are the high school and the undergraduate programs that are associated with Whale Fest. The, uh, high school program is twofold and I really am proud to talk about both of them. First of all, there is a program that is termed ocean bowl.

It's a national program, um, the, the national ocean science bowl. I think nose bowl is sometimes what it's called right? And in this case, we do one that is regional only in our state. In Alaska, we have one state competition, but the entire state simply doesn't get to get together with them, you know, with the, with each other.

So, but we do in the region and we bring high school students from Juneau, Ketchikan Whale Pass, um, Wrangell Petersburg, I mean, all through Southeast Alaska. And the students come for about four days and they do a regional ocean bowl competition. Very fun. But in addition to that, they have workshops each of the mornings of Whale Fest.

The workshop yesterday was called pathways in one health, and in that case, they were able to explore ideas of where they could go next from high school in the idea of one health studies and research. One health stands, is that term applied to that idea that the health of humans and of animals that we live with or depend upon and of the environment in general are all connected.

And if one isn't healthy, neither are the others. And so that aspect of the pathways, the students got to hear from our keynote speaker, Jackie Hildering. It was amazingly motivating. They got to talk with the director of one health from UAF to hear about the um, scholarship opportunities and the programs that are available within the university of Alaska system.

They got to tour our hatchery and they got to watch an octopus feeding, which they'll not forget. Uh, and then today they're over at the university and they are doing a, um. Experiences in research stations, of which they move from between about four or five stations, all of which help them to see what's happening in terms of the Sitka tribe of Alaska's shellfish monitoring project, and they get to see how they're processed in their lab.

They moved to a station on what you do if you're a physical therapist and how to manipulate a shoulder, which would be, many of them are volleyball or swimmers. They're probably all needing to do that. And they're going out and they're doing some work with fish tech. They're doing some work with undergraduate research, um, that is being that is taking place in the university of Alaska system.

And so they'll do hands on experiences there so that by the time the ocean bowl students leave Sitka they've not only gone through the entire tire symposium, but they've had all these other workshops that open up possibilities for them. And the other thing that we do for those students as well as the undergraduates, which I'll talk about, is where they hold a seminar after the symposium speeches talks, and the scientists come in and talk to them individually in small groups. And so the students get to to rub elbows with the very presenters they saw up on the stage.

Chance: What an amazing opportunity.

Janet: Right? So that's our high school program. We have a second high school program that just began this year. It's a partnership with the university of Alaska Southeast. Ellen Chenowith, who is a professor with the university is, is our partner along with the Sitka tribe of Alaska's natural resources program. Their Cedar lab, which is actually S, E, A, T, O, R, South East Alaska Tribal Ocean Research, they are an extraordinary partnership throughout Southeast Alaska with the, with the goal of creating a possibility for all people who rely on shellfish to test their shellfish for harmful algal bloom conditions such as PSP and so on and so forth.

So we are in partnership with those two entities and Sitka sound science center, identifying a small group of students in the rural communities of Southeast Alaska to dedicate themselves to a year of study, which will include a distance college course and in research project that will be mentored by the environmental specialist in their community.

And they kick off the program at whale Fest and they capstone it with a get together in Juno on the campus there. And in between there, they will come up with research findings that we will work together on to communicate to each other and then communicate to their community. Because we want students to understand that science research is not done in some far away place.

It's done right there in their communities on things that are relevant to that community.

Chance: It's done in service to the community. It's so that the community can understand and better manage their own resources that they rely on.

Janet: That's exactly it. And what we have found is that in these places, in rural places where people love their community. They love their place. They don't want to go somewhere else to do science work. They want to be there.

Chance: And it's also less powerful to have someone come into their community, to do science

Janet: And just do research, and then walk away.

Chance: Right, there's no trust there between the community and the individual.

Janet: You have tapped into the things that we have found in Alaska is very, very indicative of the way that scientists and science becomes something that is not trusted. So this is absolutely going to the, to the level of the high school to say, let's start building that trust and that interest there, make it happen in their communities, and give some support and skills in terms of how to communicate back to the community, what they found.

And we feel confident. The outcome of that is that students. In that community who may not have seen themselves being scientists, may not have seen themselves pursuing a scientific career could see that.

Chance: And then you've got this whole network of scientists who are tied to rural communities and are able to empower those communities to take care of their own resources.

Janet: And that's the goal, right? The goal is to bring in those perspectives that we have too little of in science. We have an extraordinarily small percentage, so small it can't get measured of native Alaskans in science. And that's not because they are unobservant or uneducated in the scientific realm in, in their communities, they are astonishing!

Alaska native populations have amazing science in as, as part of their culture. Right?

Chance: And just their lifestyle.

Janet: Exactly! And so now what we need to do is to figure out how participation in science can be part of, first of all, it's beneficial to the scientific community, but it's that aspect of going back to the culture who absolutely the primary thing is to give back to their own community. That's so important that they'll not leave a community.

Chance: Right.

Janet: Because they would never want to let down their elders, their peers and the, and the generations to come. And so this is a way to offer a possibility to, um, bring those kinds of ideas together.

And I think that's really part of one health as well because it does include the aspect that we have to have community health to be all healthy too.

Chance: And I kind of want to take a moment here to kind of define: from Texas rural means like, yeah, they're, you know, a 45 or 50 minute drive outside the city limits and, and they've got like a general store and you know, it just takes a little while to get there.

It's a little different here in Alaska. When we say a rural community in Alaska, what are we talking about?

Janet: Right well, here's what's really funny about it. First of all, all of the communities that we're talking about, you cannot access by roads. You know, you have to fly in or you have to boat in.

There's no road access, so that makes a really big difference. Secondly, in Sitka, we are 8,000 people. Most people do not look at a town of 8,000 people and say, well, that is a big community that's rather small compared to many experiences in the lower 48, "Outside" as we call it here in Alaska. Outside, 8,000 people is a small community. In Alaska we qualify as a fifth largest city.

Chance: Wow. I don't think I knew that, that's amazing.

Janet: So here we are, the fifth, fifth largest city. It means everyone else that we're talking about in Southeast Alaska that we are targeting with our RASOR program are, is so much smaller, so much smaller. We are speaking about villages or towns or communities of 200 people.

Yeah. Think what an impact one person can make on a small community like that. So we're looking at our high school students who are involved in our RASOR program: Rural Alaska Students in One health Research RASOR, uh, in our razor program as being potentially so impactful in their community that they will make a difference in how science is regarded and how, how incredibly empowered that community will feel about doing their own work.

Chance: And as as well, the reverse of that empowering the role of indigenous knowledge in science, you know, to be the Torchbearers to say, Hey, we are observant and we have been, we have known about these concepts and issues in the natural world for generations and here Western science is just now kind of starting to figure it out. So maybe, you know, a little bit of respect going both ways.

Janet: Right. The, the respect is definitely there. And that's why we know we have to have those perspectives in science. We're the poorer for it, you know? So for not having it, we're definitely want to make that a possibility. And I think Southeast Alaska is a great spot for that.

We have, uh, some commonalities that make it worth trying to work this out. The commonalities of, for instance, in in Sitka, even though we have many people who are not native Alaskan in, in Sitka, I would tell you that much of the community works in the same subsistence way for obtaining food.

There's just the community knows how important salmon is to us, and we understand the critical nature of harvesting from the sea or from the land. Salmon and venison is what we all eat.

Chance: And harvesting to survive. Not necessarily for profit but harvesting so that you can eat and survive the winter.

Janet: That's what we do. Exactly. Harvesting for your own kitchen. Right. And so the conversations in the grocery store are. I just got three buckets of salmon berries, I'm putting them up now. So then they'll be there going, Oh yes, I went yesterday. You know, there's other conversations that are had and, it's not between Sitka native Alaskans, but between everybody in Sitka, Sitka community members.

And so the commonalities are strong, but I think we still recognize that we don't have the perspectives in science as clearly established without making some efforts that allow those perspectives to get integrated.

Sarah Kathryn: And I think it's great that y'all are providing those resources because it's so easy to say, I want to do something, I want to make an impact, but there is a lot I have to do to get there. I don't have the resources for it. I don't know the people, I don't really know all the science that goes into it, but when you have a place like the science center that's like, well, we want to teach you the things you need to study the data you need to collect, and then have it all in one place so everybody kind of knows what's going on in these different parts of Alaska.

That makes it a million times easier for the person who says, I want to have an impact somehow, I want to, you know, learn these things and do this research, and now they have the opportunity to, which is great.

Chance: Yeah, the science center is really filling this role of not doing research for research sake, but being the, the ramp, the steps to get somebody where they are to where they want to be, in terms of the scientific field,

Janet: I feel like the hub, being a hub is a value of the science center and the hub aspect of that is, is not only a hub in terms of bringing people together, but connecting. And intentionally making that happen is definitely one of the values of the science center.

Other values include communication, science communication, certainly. Fun. That's a value of the science center. Um, all of those which are built in as strands to everything we do. So science communication is built into the RASOR program in terms of developing ways to communicate what they found and having fun is built into the razor program.

Some of the activities that our students have done for the entire week they've been here includes an astonishing memorable hike over to Sea Lion Cove, and includes getting together and doing games. That includes doing fantastic meals together. It includes just having fun going to the haunted ship together.

All of those, which is, again, going back to that commonality, there were really very diverse students altogether in RASOR, but what teenager does not love a haunted ship. Right?

Chance: Right.

Janet: So, I mean, you know, it's, it's just there. I mean, it is.

Chance: And in my mind, that kind of comes back to one health, too, you know, the, the sort of that personal, emotional, mental health, right?

You know, it's not always doom and gloom and science and crunching numbers. It's just as important to have time that is not that.

Janet: I so agree with you. And I see that to be, uh, something that we, we can't ignore that. We can't ignore that part of our human existence and expect that A) anybody would want to do it, right? but B) that I think that that brings the substantial richness that we're looking for in a life. And, uh, for our students. I think we need to both, not just say it's important, but to do it, and I believe that, you know, Whale Fest encapsulates, that, it's very remarkable science that's being communicated, but it's also just fun to be here and I, yeah, I think those, that's really important.

At the same time we were talking, that's just high school students. We also have another wheel that is undergraduates. This is a great program. Some five years ago, we wondered whether coming to a science festival like Whale Fest and substantially adding to that by doing workshops and doing activities and shared experiences among different undergraduates, whether that would have an influence on those students decision making in their future.

So if you were a lower division undergraduate, would that mean that you would recommit or commit for the first time to a science or STEM field? And if you were an upper level, upper division student whether that would allow you to say, "Oh, I may go on in this. I think I will get involved."

I'll go to a master's program, or I intend to get, go into a career in the fields of science. Right? So we wrote a grant with the, um, NSF to ask that question. And that is what we've been doing over the last several, well, five years, bringing students from a college outside of Alaska, for several years it was Peninsula College and they still are part of the program, this year it is Fort Lewis college and those are, um, outside of Alaska. And then bringing students from the university of Alaska system UAS, UAF. And those students all come together and they form partnerships within the group and they do all of these activities around Whale Fest and this "S Cubed" group is another just awesome experience.

Chance: I think we could sit and talk for literal hours and keep discovering more ways in which the science center is making accessible science, careers in science, and science communication to people both within and without Alaska.

Sarah Kathryn: Yeah, absolutely. But of course we don't have the time.

Janet: Well, I would love it if our role was just recognizes a way to make that kind of thing possible for students and scientists and all levels. And it is enormously satisfying.

Sarah Kathryn: Yeah, absolutely. And we hope to be back here next year to talk more about it. And for any of our audience members listening who might say, Oh, this is really cool, I want to go to WhaleFest next year, how would they be able to find out more information? Where could they go to find that?

Janet: I think our website is pretty good. It is at right, so easy to do and Sitka is S, I, T, K, A, and then there's an entire menu for Whale Fest. We reveal the theme of Whale Fest on our March food web cruise is what we call it, and it's a big reveal and so on and so forth, and then it's published and then starting at the 1st of June and people start registering for it.

That's also when we start revealing who the speakers are, so one every week we reveal who the speakers are and it's pretty fun.

Chance: That's pretty awesome.

Janet: I know haha. Scientists in Sitka are treated like celebrities. Hence as you saw at the banquet last night, the-

Chance: Sashes?

Janet: Yes!

Chance: Uh yeah, walking around a banquet wearing a sash that says scientist, and being absolutely mobbed by people asking you questions, seems like a great, great time.

Janet: It is!

Sarah Kathryn: I think they need crowns next year.

Janet: Yes! Okay, yeah!

Chance: So if you guys are listening and you'd like to get some more information, scroll down to the show notes. We're going to put a link to the website right there. Um. So you guys can check it out and learn more about Whale Fest and the Sitka sound science center.

Sarah Kathryn: Yup. Thank you so much for being on the show with us today!

Janet: Thank you, Sarah, Kathryn, and Chance.

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