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Science mentors bring students into labs

Justine Webb is a details person.

“I like the meticulous lab work things and keeping things really organized and just so,” she said. That’s good, because she’s engaged in some meticulous lab work at this very moment.

“Endless fun, dialing things back down to where they need to be,” she says, as she twists a knob on a very complicated eye dropper. At the moment, Webb is hunched over a countertop, distributing teeny, tiny little dots of dye onto the film.

Webb is a senior at Sitka High School and one of three students in a Science Mentor Program coordinated by the Sitka Sound Science Center and the Sitka Conservation Society.

A program in Sitka allows high school students to work side-by-side with scientists on their research. The Science Mentors Program, run through the Sitka Conservation Society and the Sitka Sound Science Center, puts three high school students in the field and in the lab.

Today, Webb is running DNA samples from soil bacteria and from ermines, small impossibly cute weasel-like animals with a bit of a mean streak. She assembles a plastic tray, puts the DNA samples into a gel, and pours blue liquid over the top.

And that’s when Kitty LaBounty comes over to check on her. LaBounty is assistant professor of biology at UAS in Sitka, and Webb’s mentor.

“I like to let people screw up, and then I rescue them,” she says.

LaBounty calls it a bad habit, and then corrects herself. It’s not a bad habit. It’s a teaching tool.

LaBounty: “Why would that not work?”
Webb: “It’s on the wrong side.”
LaBounty: “So it won’t actually run at all this way.”
Webb: “Oh dear.”
LaBounty: “But you can still lift this thing out. You have two choices…”

Webb fixes her mistakes and says she appreciates when people point out what she’s doing wrong in the lab.

“These guys have been awesome,” she says. “I am the least experienced in here, but they help me when I ask. I feel like, for lack of a better term, kind of the baby of the classroom, because I’m like ‘Where’s this? How do I do this?’ They’ve just been helpful in every little aspect, because I do mess up like that. And I’d rather know than keep going.”

Webb says with the schedule she’s taking at Sitka High, she doesn’t have time to take the genetics course she wants to. This fills that void, and gives her the connections needed to actually DO science.

“I’d say it’s a lot more focused, since it is just one subject than what we have at my high school, where there’s physical science and life science,” she says. “When you get into your junior and senior years, you can do more focused sciences, like science and technology, and physics and chemistry. But even a little more focused than what we have at Sitka High.”

LaBounty says the mentor program is fairly new.

“You know, when you take a drawing class, they don’t tell you you can’t pick up the pencil until you’re really good with it. They say, ‘Here’s the pencil. Learn how to do it.’ That’s kind of what this class is for me,” LaBounty said. “Here’s the technique, and obviously it takes some mentoring and some teaching to learn how to use the techniques, but they learn while they’re doing it. And I think they get it much more internally.”

And she says doing science and teaching science are very different things.

“I’m not entirely sure I’m the best science teacher in the world, except for by this technique,” LaBounty said. “I feel I actually teach students more about science, and the excitement of science and the excitement of discovery through very hands-on programs like this.”

Students learn about crawling through the forest to gather samples, but also about how a whole day’s work can be spoiled by a broken computer, or a misplaced group of data.

And perhaps most importantly, she says, the desired result is unknown. This isn’t like your average science class, where all the students are trying to achieve a particular outcome.

“No one knows the answer to their questions. That’s what I love about this class,” LaBounty said. “I’ve been working with it for a few years. I have to tell the students, ‘I don’t know how your project is going to work.’ I might have worked with similar ones in the past, but I don’t know the answer.”

Scott Harris coordinates the program for the Sitka Conservation Society. He says the three students in the mentor program will present their work in a public forum, probably later this month. And Harris agrees with LaBounty and Webb, in that the mentor program supplements what they’re doing during the regular school day. But he also says it could have broader implications.

“I look back at my experience as a youngster, and one-on-one interactions, especially with professional people, makes a big difference,” Harris said. “They learn a lot about what that person’s career path might be in their job, and if it’s something they want to study in college or do in the future they’ll just have so much more insight into that.”

Webb says this, and a molecular techniques class she took in November through Sitka Whalefest, have helped her envision a future in the field.

“It wasn’t really until this year that I kind of decided that’s what I wanted to do,” Webb says. “I want to go to school for some kind of environmental sciences degree. It wasn’t until this year that I was really interested in it.”

The Science Mentor program is a partnership between the Sitka Conservation Society, the Sitka Sound Science Center, the University of Alaska Southeast, and Sitka High School science teacher Kent Bovee.

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