Thursday, October 18, 2012

Alaska Native Ways of Knowing

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Alaska Native peoples have traditional ways of understanding and relating to the world and to each other. Such ways of knowing are based on a systematic method of observing the natural world, much like Western science uses. Western science often develops theories based on a process of experimentation. While at times Alaska Native science may mirror a process of experimentation, Alaska Native peoples rely on direct experiences as well as knowledge and information passed down from generation to generation. This enables them to develop a holistic perspective of the natural world that is linked to their individual and community survival, well-being, and safety. Still, Alaska Native science and Western science are complementary. These different approaches each contribute relevant information about an object, problem, or natural system that can be used to enhance the understanding of a given topic.

Over the centuries, village Elders have shared their vast body of accumulated knowledge and life wisdom through stories and demonstrations. This lesson begins with two videos that present how local knowledge is acquired, passed on, and applied. Following a brief class discussion, students watch more videos that will help them prepare for their primary assignment: completing a science fair project that demonstrates the application of traditional knowledge to a scientific topic. Through interviews with community members, especially Alaska Native Elders, students will develop and refine their project ideas. They will make observations, conduct experiments, create demonstrations, and report their findings in poster displays. The lesson ends with a classroom science fair, during which projects are evaluated on cultural and scientific content.


Learn about the interconnectivity between the air, water, land, fire, and spirit
Examine the importance of "reading" the land, knowing the local language, learning from Elders, and living in harmony with nature
Understand that Alaska Native ways of knowing is a systematic method of observing nature and passing on knowledge that is time-tested and successful
Explain how Western science can complement Alaska Native ways of knowing
Grade Level: 3–12
Suggested Time
Five class periods spread out over two to three weeks, plus time outside of class for completing the projects
Note: Schedule the lesson to include sufficient classroom time for an introduction, and for watching and discussing the videos, exploring different topics, having initial planning discussions, making periodic progress reports, holding the fair itself, viewing other projects, and wrapping up. Data gathering, interviews, and constructing the science fair poster will take place outside of the classroom.

Media Resources

The Spirit of Subsistence Living Video
Alaska Native Pilots Video
Science Fairs Are Fun
To Show What We Know (AISES science fair)
Alaska Native Profiles

La'ona DeWilde: Environmental Biologist Video
Steve MacLean: Conservationist Video
Dustin Madden: Science Teacher Video
Dolly Garza: A Tlingit and Haida Scientist Interactive
Richard Glenn: Iñupiaq Geologist Interactive
Taqulik Hepa: North Slope Natural Resources Interactive

Observing Snow
Glossary of Alaska Native and Western Science Terms Document
Science Fair Project Guidelines Document
Interview an Elder or Other Community Member Document
Elders in the Classroom Document
Judging a Demonstration or Collection Document
Judging an Experiment Document
Cultural Judging by an Elder or Alaska Native Volunteer Document
Basic materials for creating posters, such as newsprint or easel paper, markers, and glue/tape
Tables or easels on which to display posters


Participant Handbook of the Kodiak Island Rural Science Fair '03-'04 PDF Document
Before the Lesson
Review the Glossary of Alaska Native and Western Science Terms Document. You may also want to make the glossary available to students in Step 1 below. Encourage them to refer back to the glossary as needed throughout the lesson.
Review the science fair process outlined in the Alaska Science Camps, Fairs, and Experiments PDF Document. More than 200 ideas for science fair projects begin on page 65. Village Science is another handbook with suggestions for science-based activities that relate to rural life.
Determine how you will approach the science fair arrangements for your classroom and identify the resources you will need to implement the science fair. If possible, invite local cultural and science experts to be the judges.
Optional: Two DVDs, To Show What We Know and Science Fairs Are Fun, are available at the Alaska Native Knowledge Network. These contain additional insights about how students should choose and complete projects, as well as scientific and cultural judging criteria to use when evaluating projects later on in the activity. You may choose to show students one or both of these during the lesson. Because of time constraints, you may wish to show only selected parts of the videos.
If you wish further guidance concerning the integration of local and traditional knowledge in the school curriculum, consult the Handbook for Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum.
Refer to the accompanying for tips on helping students select a culturally relevant science fair project and establishing project goals and judging criteria.

The Lesson

Part I: Preparing Science Projects with Cultural Themes
1. To provide students with a broad introduction to Alaska Native ways of knowing, show them the The Spirit of Subsistence Living Video and the Alaska Native Pilots Video. After the video, ask students to reflect on and discuss how local and traditional knowledge is acquired and used in different ways by hunters, gatherers, and fishers in the students' community, other Alaska Native peoples and, by extension, other indigenous peoples around the world.

Have students refer to the Glossary handout as they watch this video and throughout the lesson, as they may encounter words with which they are not familiar.

2. Explain to students that they will be preparing classroom science fair projects based on their own lives, their family heritage, or community activities that demonstrate the application of Alaska Native knowledge to everyday living. Projects may offer a comparison of Alaska Native ways and Western ways, show how local/traditional knowledge and Western science can be used together to strengthen one's understanding of a subject, or show how such knowledge has helped their community or Alaska Native people to survive, thrive, and adapt.

To help prepare them for the project, have students watch the online media resources Science Fairs Are Fun and To Show What We Know available at the Alaska Native Knowledge Network. These videos feature students describing their science fair projects and explain criteria on which the science fair entries may be judged. Decide whether students will complete their projects individually, in pairs, or as part of a small team.

Note: You should gauge how much guidance your students need with this phase and those that follow based on the age and experience level of students. For example, you might need to communicate to younger students a strict timeframe within which certain activities must be completed.

Because climate and related environmental changes are an important and ongoing concern in Alaska, you may choose to limit the focus of student projects to topics in Earth science, especially for older students, who can synthesize life science and physical science concepts. For example, if a student wishes to study animals, she or he may focus on changes in animals or natural habitat. The factors being tested in an experiment could be changes in climate or exposure to contaminants. Elders, hunters, gatherers, fishermen, or tradespeople may be able to elaborate on how things are different now than in years or generations past.

For areas where snow is available, examples of potential science lessons and projects incorporating local/traditional knowledge can be found by watching Observing Snow, another online media resource.

3. To further stimulate ideas and inspire students about potential topics, show them one or more of the following media resources that feature an Alaska Native person working in a science-related field:

La'ona DeWilde: Environmental Biologist Video
Steve MacLean: Conservationist Video
Dustin Madden: Science Teacher Video
Dolly Garza: A Tlingit and Haida Scientist Interactive
Richard Glenn: Iñupiaq Geologist Interactive
Taqulik Hepa: North Slope Natural Resources Interactive
4. After viewing the resources, arrange a brainstorming session. Have students talk about potential project ideas. To broaden the overall scope of learning, students or teams should choose different topics. Some students will offer ideas that will inspire others to suggest ideas of their own.

Note: Students need to select a topic before moving to Step 5. If they are having difficulty developing their own ideas, you might choose to refer them to the Alaska Science Camps, Fairs, and Experiments PDF Document, which, beginning on page 41, contains pre-defined topics on which they may base their projects.

5. Once students have selected their topics, they will interview Elders or other community members, such as hunters, subsistence fishermen, gatherers, weavers, needleworkers, doctors, biologists, carvers, craftsmen, and specialists working in natural resources fields. Because men and women often have different roles and perspectives in the community, they will have different observations to share. In addition, people whom they may know from different kinds of habitats or tribes can give them a broader perspective.

Before students conduct interviews, distribute the Interview an Elder or Other Community Member Document. Because safety is always a concern, be aware of the interviews that students are setting up outside of school and make sure that the subjects are well known to students. Have students go in pairs (or with an adult family member or friend) to any interviews outside of the classroom. You may also consider having an Elder or a panel of Elders come into the classroom. Your community may have tribal organizations that can recommend safe, positive, and inspiring individuals whose influence on students could be significant.

Read and share ideas with students from the Elders in the Classroom Document to help them learn more about how to respectfully work with Elders. If you wish, have students conduct practice interviews with each other before interviewing Elders.

6. After students have further explored and refined their project ideas with help from the interviews, they will need to develop appropriate scientific experiments (e.g., testing which animal skin is warmer through such samples as hide hair or amount of blubber, gathering abnormal animal or fish tissue to compare against more typical samples, etc.), collections (e.g., of hunting tools), or demonstrations (e.g., how to read the clouds) that highlight the local/traditional knowledge imbedded in the project. Distribute and review with the class the Science Fair Project Guidelines Document.

At this time, you may also wish to consider how judges (or you, the teacher) will evaluate students' projects. Here are some examples of rubrics you can use or adapt:

Judging a Demonstration or Collection Document
Judging an Experiment Document
Cultural Judging by an Elder or Alaska Native Volunteer Document
Page 12 from Participant Handbook of the Kodiak Island Rural Science Fair '03-'04 PDF Document

The science fair in this lesson suggests a classroom setting. If you are planning a more elaborate event and seek to create a participant handbook, you may find this a helpful model: Participant Handbook of the Kodiak Island Rural Science Fair '03-'04 PDF Document.

7. On completion of Step 6, have students develop a poster display illustrating what they did, the project results, and their topic's cultural and scientific relevance. This will serve as the basis for their entry in the science fair.

Posters should be clearly organized and include the following:

A descriptive title
An introduction that mentions the topic, the student's interest in it, and the purpose of the project
The hypothesis or question the student investigated (if applicable)
A list of materials and procedures used in the project
Pictures or objects that demonstrate procedures or support the topic
Data and results (if applicable)
A conclusion that includes a description of how closely the results support the student's hypothesis or question, or, in case of a demonstration, a summary of what the student learned
Suggestion of further questions to study or experiments to perform (if applicable)
A list of references, including the names of all people interviewed
Part II: The Science Fair
8. Have students display their posters in the classroom on tables, walls, or easels, if available. If arranged in advance, have cultural and science specialists judge the projects. If not, you should play this role. Students should be prepared to present their project or make their demonstration, answering judges' questions about how their work helps them understand how their community uses resources to interact with its environment, and how it conveys scientific principles. Encourage students to use local language and words when applicable during their presentations to relate the importance of language in understanding the environment, fish, and wildlife.

To allow students to practice their presentations before the judging begins, you may choose to divide the class in half and have one half tour the classroom while the other half explains their projects and answers any questions. Then have the two groups switch roles. If possible, do this a few days before the actual fair to give students time to do any minor touch-ups on their projects. Additionally, students can be encouraged to practice their presentations before family and friends.

9. Encourage students from other classrooms or family to come tour the classroom science fair.

10. Optional Extension Activity: Encourage students to submit their projects for entry into other competitions. You may select the top entry or entries from your classroom fair for consideration at a school, district, or state science fair. If the school is serving a Native American population, projects can be entered into the annual American Indian Science and Engineering Society National Science Fair.

Check for Understanding
Students will demonstrate their understanding of the lesson's objectives through their poster display, presentation, and response to questions from the judge or judges evaluating the projects. Since each student or team project will have addressed a different topic, the knowledge gained by the class as a whole should be shared. This can happen in a "practice" session prior to judging (see Step 8), or by having students present their projects to the class after the science fair, along with any feedback they received from the judges. You may also have students write a brief summary or analysis of a few of their fellow students' projects. The sharing of their expertise is an essential component of this lesson.

Note: If students are experienced at reviewing each other's work from previous projects, then you may want to review the process with them. If this is fairly new to the class, then you should plan to spend a little time sharing how the process is intended to work. For example, suggest that they provide thoughtful feedback and suggestions for improvement rather than too much criticism.

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