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Story Last modified at 9:49 p.m. on Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Collective learning
Eagle River students immerse themselves in marine science

Alaska Star


National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Chris Craemer shows Eagle River Elementary optional program student Brennen Larson the differences between some of Alaska's commonly found flatfish during a two-day intensives program on marine science on Jan. 14.
STAR PHOTOs by Melissa DeVaughn

National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Chris Craemer held up a flat, dead fish in the palm of her hand and displayed it to the children gathered around the tables in Jennifer Spain's classroom at Eagle River Elementary School on Jan. 14.

This was Day 2 of a yearly program called "Intensives," designed to get the children of the school's optional program immersed in one topic.

"We do this every year and kids seem to really like it," said fifth/sixth-grade teacher Spain, who was a spectator in Friday's proceedings while experts in the field of marine science stepped in as instructors for the two days.

Collaborative learning is a hallmark of the optional program, Spain pointed out, so even though she works with older kids, the two-day intensive is designed to get children of all ages working together, offering the multi-aged, theme-based curriculum that is the center of the educational concept.

Gathered around the table of fish were children ranging from about 6 years old to 12, learning together more like a pack of brothers and sisters than a group of schoolmates.

"I wonder if they're the same fish, if they're a boy and a girl?" one little girl wondered aloud, while simultaneously another asked, "Can we cut them open and see the babies?"

Craemer, exhibiting the patience of a teacher – or at the very least a parent of young children – answered both questions seamlessly: "You can't tell their sex just by looking at them" and "They don't have babies inside them; they lay eggs."

Parent Laura Simkins, who along with parents James Latimer, Elaine Hedden and Kaleigh Wotring helped organize the event, said the children seem to look forward to the two-day intensives every year. The program is designed not only to immerse the children into the topic of choice but also to include parents, outside experts and others who come together as a community to educate the young.

"The kids reactions have been amazing," she said. "Especially the younger ones because this is all newer to them."


The Optional program at Eagle River Elementary School puts equal emphasis on intellectual, social, emotional and physical needs of the child in a noncompetitive environment. Participation is through the Anchorage School District lottery program. Lottery applications are accepted the last two weeks of March. An Alternative Schools Fair will be held 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Feb. 5 at Homestead Elementary for those interested in learning more.

The optional program has a parent-run steering committee that helps organize events throughout the year. The two-day intensive is its biggest undertaking, said the committee's leader, Cary Moore, who has two children in the program.

Parents help out as assistants and experts are brought in for the lessons. The students are broken into four groups and visit learning stations, all centered around the theme of choice.

"They did an amazing job this year and worked really hard," Moore said. "(My children) came home talking about tsunamis and earthquakes and they really enjoyed dissecting the shrimp and writing with the squid ink."

The two days of presentations and activities "were designed to enhance learning objectives of the optional classrooms via parents and locally available professionals," Simkins said.

"For 2008-09 we brought in science-based biology and ecology professionals, and 2009-10 featured a sustainability theme."

One year, Simkins said, the program focused on Native cultures, and representatives from the Alaska Native Heritage Center came in to give demonstrations and teach about different forms of art within the cultures.

This year's theme, marine science, is a popular one, she added. It involved all sorts of icky and fascinating projects for the students. They dissected octopus, shrimp and squid, learned to identify a variety of flatfish and macroinvertebrates (aka tiny water bugs), studied the effect weather has on shoreline health and made an ocean mural to represent the health of the marine world.

"The goal really is to have the parents in here to help their children learn," Simkins said, "to mentor their child in a way that sets an example of what education means to us as parents."

Reach Melissa DeVaughn at

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 19, 2011.