The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District hosted 125 students from the Fairbanks community for STEM activities on Aug. 5 at the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project near North Pole, Alaska.
On the fourth day of a weeklong STEM Kamp at Eielson Air Force Base where they learned about Ph levels, water interaction and recycling the campers took a field trip and put their classroom knowledge into practice with scientists from USACE, the National Weather Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the National Park Service.
Justin Kerwin, senior park ranger, coordinated with camp officials to organize the event to educate and inspire the next generation of STEM professionals.
“I believe this is an excellent opportunity to not only partner with different agencies but for our district to come together as a team to help steward young minds and give a detailed look at how diverse USACE is as an agency,” Kerwin said.
The students at the event rotated through eight stations where they learned about everything from hydrology to salmon life cycles to archeology as it relates to the operation of the Moose Creek Dam at the Chena Project.
“At my station, we showed how a drop of rain or a flake of snow journeys its way through the dam to Fairbanks,” said Lauren Oliver, hydraulics and hydrology engineer at the Alaska District.
Campers watched her demonstrate rainfall measurements by pouring water into a tipping bucket rain gauge as she explained why scientists take measurements and how it impacts the height of the river.
The students also learned about archeological fieldwork and zooarchaeology at two stations near the project office.
“The zooarchaeology station explains why animal bones are important, how we interact with animals in their environments and how we can use their bones to determine this,” said Kelly Eldridge, archeologist at the Alaska District. “Bones tell us how humans interacted with animals and the environment, so if the bones of a seal are five to six months old at an archeological site, you know that the location was occupied in the fall.”
The students explored this concept, known as seasonality, and how zooarchaeologists can tell the sex of an animal based on bones as they gathered around two moose skulls.
“Can anyone tell me the difference between these two animal skulls?” asked Ranna Wells, zooarchaeologist at the Alaska District.
Campers guessed different features before landing on the brow bone, with Wells telling them how that relates to the antlers on bull moose. They also learned about the fieldwork component of archaeology.
“I’ve always wanted to be a paleontologist!” said Marcos Ramirez, a student in a dinosaur mask.
After an explanation from Eldridge on how to dig at an archeological site, the campers practiced their skills by sifting dirt for pieces of ceramic and obsidian.
“The other important part of archeological work is teamwork,” Eldridge said. “All of you are my lab people that help us identify what we find in the field.”
With the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, students learned about the lifecycle of salmon and spotted the fry, or young salmon, in the Chena River. They also learned about wildlife near the Moose Creek Dam and tested their skills by searching for animal tracking collars hidden in the area.
At another station, a USACE representative demonstrated the effectiveness of different materials in retaining water.
“We are discussing grain size and how the dam is constructed,” said Andrew Romero, geotechnical scientist at the Alaska District.
He then ran water through three tubes that were each packed separately with gravel, sand and silt to show how silt works best at holding water. When the Chena River rises, USACE operates the Moose Creek Dam to retain water behind an eight-mile earthen embankment. Romero pointed towards the structure as he emphasized the importance of using the right composition of soil and material when engineering dams to reduce flood risks.
As the campers piled onto busses at the end of the day, Kerwin provided water safety items for them to take home with Bobber the Water Safety Dog, who reminded students that a life jacket is man’s “vest” friend!
“As the leading provider of water-based recreation nationally, it’s very important that we take every opportunity to teach kids about the significance of life jackets when recreating on or near the water,” Kerwin said.
The Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project protects downtown Fairbanks from flooding and offers numerous recreational opportunities including hunting, hiking, fishing, horseback and walking trails, paved bike paths and wildlife viewing.
Through a partnership with the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the Chena Lakes Recreation Area offers a boat launch, camp sites, cross-country trails, picnic spots, playground, non-alcohol beach, swimming, volleyball court and restrooms.