Alaska Native program succeeds with help from many
Middle schoolers build their own souped-up gaming computers. Interns study spawning of salmon and sands around oil wells. Two alumni are now the first Alaska Native tenure-track engineering faculty members anywhere in the world.
The Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program at the University of Alaska is the most effective effort in the country for preparing Alaska Native and other indigenous students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math, based on various measures of achievement.
“We’re only now beginning to hit our stride,” says Herb “Ilisaurri” Schroeder, ANSEP’s founder and now a vice provost overseeing it. He created an approach to learning that is evolving to better reach younger students. “Now we are starting acceleration high schools. I think it has the potential to be the most transformative of anything we’ve ever done.”
ANSEP started in 1995 as the vision of this engineer who years ago struggled in school, who knew what it felt like to be told “you’re not smart enough.”
Rasmuson Foundation, an early supporter, is wrapping up a five-year, $5 million investment in this flagship program, part of $9 million in Foundation support to ANSEP over 16 years. The goal was to help ANSEP become sustainable. Has the strategy succeeded?
Yes, said Schroeder, who applies engineering skills to leverage funding. When a significant donation is received, he works to identify a way to replace it so the money never runs out.
“And we’ve been 100 percent successful so far,” he said.
Next academic year Schroeder expects the University of Alaska funding will reach a total of $3.6 million in an ANSEP budget that will have grown to $10 million.
Students push themselves
ANSEP now is working with about 2,200 Alaska students a year, mainly in middle and high school. It doesn’t offer college degrees or classes itself, but provides a supportive framework to prepare younger students for college and to open opportunities for those at the university level. The money supports staff salaries, two-week residential middle school academies and a full-time high school academy in Palmer that allows students to earn college credits. A similar academy is planned for Anchorage. There are summertime academies for high school students, paid internships, college scholarships and more.
“ANSEP has done a ton for me personally,” said Jules Mermelstein, who is Inupiaq and grew up in the small community of Manley Hot Springs. He has benefited from ANSEP four ways: the middle school academy, an ANSEP-guided course of study in high school that allowed him to graduate at age 16 with 43 college credits, internships with ConocoPhillips and BP where he worked alongside engineers, and now college scholarships.
During his first internship the summer after high school, he learned some basics of petroleum engineering to analyze which remediation efforts worked best to slow or halt water intruding into wells.
“Which was surprising to me. Because I just graduated from high school,” Mermelstein said. He will finish college with a double major in mechanical and electrical engineering. He hopes to work in renewable energy.
A 256-page Urban Institute study of ANSEP completed in January 2015 described it as “a dynamic and evolving model” that targeted Alaska Native students and those from underserved communities. Of those who received a college scholarship through ANSEP, three-fourths were either currently enrolled in or had graduated from a science, math or engineering degree program, according to ANSEP.
Foundation support for students, leadership
Rasmuson Foundation supported the path to long-term sustainability with three key investments:
• A $2 million challenge grant in 2002 toward the original ANSEP building, a light-filled, welcoming place for study and support that mimics the form of a canoe, a symbol of Alaska Native cultures both beautiful and functional. The $7 million building opened in 2006.
• $2 million in 2007 toward a $4.4 million endowment to ensure Alaska Native students have an advocate in perpetuity. The endowment establishes what is called the Dr. Herb Ilisaurri Schroeder Chair and provides a stable funding stream for a full-time faculty member dedicated to ANSEP.
• The $5 million in 2013 to stabilize ANSEP as an institution, including for a scholarship stream.
To Schroeder, ANSEP is part education, part social justice program that guides students past historical traumas of disease, prejudice and institutional opposition to help them discover what they are capable of.
The ANSEP building itself provides a structure.
“I said we were never going to be successful unless I have a place for my students to go,” said Schroeder, whose office is there, decorated with whale baleen, masks and seal skins. He calls students by name. He knows where they are from. He knows where they are headed.
“He’s like our ANSEP dad,” said Michelle Slwooko, a natural science major from Gambell who was settled in at a work station with snacks and coffee during spring semester. “I’m here all the time, from when it opens until it closes, almost every day.”
Study teams meet in recitation rooms where students take the lead in solving complex problems through formulas that stretch across room-wide white boards.
“You can’t hide from yourself when you teach,” Schroeder says, describing one benefit of student-led study sessions.
Schroeder, who is not Alaska Native, is from Chicago. His first exposure to the Arctic was shoveling snow at an Arctic pipeline camp. Years ago, he worked as a laborer on the trans-Alaska pipeline and saw not just the need but also the desire for homegrown engineers. As a young professor, Schroeder researched remote Alaska villages where residents still relied on honeybuckets for toilets. He saw a disconnect in communications between the public health entities managing improvements and village residents.
“Two years working on the project, I never met a Native engineer. I said ‘I’m a professor. I’ll make some Native engineers.’ ” But it wasn’t so simple. He discovered many students weren’t prepared for college academics or for the stress of being away from their small villages, where lives revolved around hunting, fishing and gathering from the land and sea, not libraries, computers and research papers.
From the start, Schroeder embraced the role of renegade. He took on an administration that didn’t see a need to create a special STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — educational program for Alaska Native students. One now-gone dean told him behind a closed office door that “we are not going to dumb our school down.”
He kept going. And soon he started to reach out to students in high school, then even younger.
ANSEP is open to students of all backgrounds. The middle school program started in 2010 and quickly grew into one of ANSEP’s most important elements. Students who attend the academy are expected to complete Algebra 1 by eighth grade. School districts — 14 are partners — also now buy in directly with a combined $1 million a year. Alaska Airlines last year agreed to a second, three-year, $1 million grant to fly middle school kids from rural hubs to Anchorage. The ANSEP grants are among the largest the airline has made in 85 years of operations in Alaska. The original ANSEP building now is joined by the ANSEP Academy Building on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus to hold middle school sessions, career exploration programs and other educational events.
‘We don’t die’
Supporters and partners come from a vast network of more than 100 corporations, philanthropic organizations, government agencies and schools. Partners include The Alaska Community Foundation and Alaska Federation of Natives, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. and ConocoPhillips, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., Bristol Bay Native Corp. and Doyon Ltd., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among many others.
Rasmuson Foundation’s educational tour for outside grantmakers has generated support including from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Los Angeles-based ECMC Foundation, which committed $600,000. In 2013, after Suzanne McCarron visited Alaska in 2013 on behalf of ExxonMobil Foundation, ExxonMobil designated $200,000 a year to expanding the middle school program.
The diversified funding provides a solid base. If one funder pulls out, Schroeder said, “we don’t die.”
A leading corporate partner is Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. It has contributed more than $4 million to ANSEP since the early 2000s. It helped pay for the building, put money toward the endowed chair and pays for university scholarships. In return, ANSEP helps the company meet its commitment to develop a workforce that is 20 percent Alaska Native, said Michelle Egan, director of Alyeska corporate communications.
“We have long viewed the ANSEP program as an excellent pipeline for engineers and we recruit heavily from the program, starting with interns,” Egan said. “Competition from other organizations is fierce, though!” Alyeska contributed $175,000 this year and intends to keep that up, she said.
At age 19, Tvetene Carlson is a senior at UAA. He is Ahtna Athabascan and grew up in the small community of Cantwell, where he was in a high school graduating class of two. He found his community of self-described nerds at the ANSEP Middle School Academy and accumulated college credits in high school through an Acceleration Academy. As a college student, he has an ANSEP scholarship and found instant camaraderie in the program’s building.
“We get stuck on our homework and we turn to our left and say ‘what did you get on this one?’ ” Carlson said. It’s important to have a community of friends and peers, people “you can cry with when something is going rough.”
The internships and opportunities he already has been afforded are astounding. For the U.S. Geological Survey, he studied how forest fires affect the flow of groundwater in the tundra. He worked under a civil engineer at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium on water and wastewater projects in rural villages. Last summer he helped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service retrofit culverts to make them more fish friendly. Then ANSEP picked him and another student to travel to Greenland in a study-abroad program under the Technical University of Denmark.
Carlson is majoring in civil engineering. He figures he will go to graduate school Outside as a part of the ANSEP Alaska-grown PhD component and return to join the faculty.
“I am still attached to my community of Cantwell,” he said. “The state has taught me so much.”
A recent University of Alaska report found more than 60 percent of incoming students arrived in need of development coursework — meaning they aren’t ready for college.
How many who were part of ANSEP in middle and high school need remedial help? Schroeder didn’t need a calculator for his answer:
Zero, he said.