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KIBSD students visit Australia through AKTEACH

September 14, 2015

KIBSD students visit Australia through AKTEACH
By Noelle H. Lowery

Some 300 students around Alaska — including every village on Kodiak and classes at North Star, East and Main elementary schools — recently took a virtual trip to Taronga Western Plains Zoo in New South Wales, Australia, thanks to content share programming offered through AKTEACH.

This was one of the first times that Kodiak Island Borough School district elementary schools participated in the distance learning programming, and according to those who took part, it was a rousing success. One of those teachers was North Star third-grade teacher Chris Polum; 103 North Star students participated in the program.

“I chose to participate to show the students an animal they probably wouldn’t get to experience, at least any time soon,” explains Polum. “Both the students and I greatly enjoyed the program. They kept it entertaining and allowed for some great engagement.”

Polum adds that the experience also served as a curriculum platform for his students. “We are doing animal research reports later in the year, and the information given by the zookeepers will be along the same lines of the information I expect my students to gather,” he says.

According to AKTEACH’s Phillip Johnson and Anthony White, this is precisely one of the goals of Alaskans Transforming Educational Access within Communities and Homes (AKTEACH). While primarily focused on being “the very best statewide homeschool/correspondence school in the state,” the KIBSD initiative also seeks to meet the diverse educational needs of ALL district students and provide them with diverse educational opportunities by applying the “3W Principle” of “Wherever, Whenever, Whatever” — Wherever the student is currently located (home, school, or mobile); Whenever they need access to content (any time of the day); and Whatever the content needs may be (diverse course offerings regardless of the students geographic location).

“We have typically focused on the village schools,” explains White, AKTEACH’s statewide virtual content and STEM program coordinator. “Now, we also are reaching out to the elementary and middle schools in town…We are hoping to present opportunities and programming to the teachers in town that they aren’t normally able to provide.”

AKTEACH Director Johnson agrees: “Programs of this nature serve two purposes one of which is to support the teaching and learning process and the other, and perhaps most powerful, is to connect students who otherwise might never connect to unique, authentic learning experiences. There’s great power in learning when students become part of the experience rather than stand on the outside and look in.”

To that end, AKTEACH has collaborated with organizations like the Taronga Western Plains Zoo, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Alaska SeaLife Center, Denali National Park and Preserve, and the University of Fairbanks to create a series of free, interactive conferences that have expanded the educational experiences for village schools and homeschool students throughout KIBSD and Alaska, including the Alaska Gateway School District. Programming has ranged from an actual squid dissection and scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef to a study of reindeer habitat and a cultural exchange in which dancers demonstrated traditional Aboriginal, Alutiiq and Yup’ik dances for students.

The star of the most recent program with the Taronga Western Plains Zoo was the Tasmanian Devil. The zoo has a conservation and breeding program for the endangered species, which has faced near extinction in the wild because of the Devil Facial Tumor Disease. In fact, zoo officials report that there has been up to a 90 percent decline in some wild Tasmanian Devil populations since the disease was discovered in 1996.

The breeding program at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo was instituted in 2008, and is part of a national insurance population program whose aim it is to create greater genetic diversity for the animal. The zoo’s breeding program has produced 22 live births in the last seven years.

For both Johnson and White, the addition of KIBSD in-town elementary and middle school students to program offerings only will enhance and expand AKTEACH’s current effort to create a statewide culture of connectedness.

“It is an opportunity for more students who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise,” notes White. “We always introduce everyone and give the students an idea of where everyone is. They live on same island, and they see one another doing the same activities…The students are seeing other students be a part of that connection.”
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