MEHS Science Kids

posted Feb 1, 2011, 9:45 AM by Mark Nance

By Craig Giammona

Courtesy Daily Sitka Sentinel

A pair of juniors at Mt. Edgecumbe High School recently scored what could be called a scientific upset.

Attending the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage for the first time, Tessa Baldwin and Mamie Clare presented research on bowhead whale calls that they conducted in science teacher Michael Mahoney’s sea technology class.

Looking at data collected in the Chukchi Sea, the Edgecumbe team discovered that bowhead whale calls are more frequent in the spring, when the whales are passing by Barrow to feed.

A poster outlining their research placed in the top five at the symposium, which had entries from a few dozen other students.

Mt. Edgecumbe students, from left, Clarissa Zeller (Red Devil), Tessa Baldwin (Kotzebue) and Mamie Clare (Sitka) gather with science teacher Mike Mahoney and display research papers on bowhead whales and bearded seals. (Photo by Craig Giammona, Sitka Sentinel)

The other entries, however, were not from high school students. They were submitted by graduate students seeking master’s and doctoral degrees.

“It was a surprise,” Mahoney told the Sentinel this week, as Baldwin, who hails from Kotzebue, and Clare, a Sitka student, nodded in agreement.

Mahoney accompanied the girls to the conference, which was held earlier this month. He said the judges typically  announce a winner of the poster contest, and a runner-up. But they made special mention of the Mt. Edgecumbe team this year, pointing out to the crowd of advanced students and professional scientists from around the country and abroad that two high school students had placed in the top five of the 40 entries submitted.

Clare and Baldwin have been working with bowhead whale data for the last two years.

Other students in Mahoney’s SeaTech class are conducting research on belugas and different types of seals.

The data is provided by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, located on the campus of the University of California San Diego. Each September, Scripps scientists board an icebreaker for a research trip into Arctic waters. Using “high frequency recording packages,” or harps, Scripps records animal calls in the waters north of Barrow throughout the year. Scripps has been sharing the data with Mahoney’s students for the last three years.

A reporter visiting Mahoney’s classroom recently found an oddly still classroom, with the eight students wearing headphones. Mahoney explained they were listening to Scripps recordings, trying to identify calls from the species they are studying. But as class was winding down, students started removing their headphones and were eager to talk about their work.

“It’s cool,” said Allison Simeon, a senior from Anchorage. “It opens up a whole new world to you.”

Clarissa Zeller, a senior from Red Devil, has been researching bearded seals. Her work is part of a project presented at the symposium by a Scripps scientist.

Zeller said it’s interesting to listen to the seal calls, which she said sound much different when they are recorded underwater.

Zeller and classmate Kyle Kitka, a senior from Sitka, made a trip to Barrow last fall to describe their research in the hopes that students there, who are more conveniently located, would get involved in the Scripps project.

Zeller raved about the trip to the Arctic community, and expressed a desire to attend UCSD for college. Clare and Baldwin also said they would like to attend the San Diego school to pursue oceanography.

Zeller, meanwhile, has plans beyond college that include her two classmates.

“Once we get into UCSD and graduate, there’ll be a job waiting for us (at Scripps),” Zeller said.

The relationship between Scripps and Mt. Edgecumbe began about three years ago. An Edgecumbe teacher is friends with a scientist there, and put Mahoney in contact with the research institution.

MEHS students can pursue oceanography and several other avenues within the SeaTech curriculum once they have completed their basic science requirements at the state-operated boarding school.

Mahoney said the recent symposium featured three distinct areas of research: the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and the Arctic.

On their assigned day, when the Arctic was the topic of discussion, Baldwin and Clare spent several hours standing near their poster, explaining their work to the scientists who passed by. They said they were a bit nervous in the beginning, but got used to delivering their spiel as the hours passed.

Clare said about 60 people probably passed by their poster, including some, if not all, of the 30 anonymous judges. Baldwin said they got a big assist from the professor who runs Scripps’ whale acoustic lab. John Hildebrand, a scientist experienced in these types of symposium presentations, put the girls through a practice session prior to their big day.

And it apparently paid off, as the judges put their poster on bowhead seasonality ahead of at least 35 entries from advanced students.

Mahoney said the announcement caused a bit of a stir at the symposium, as participants realized how well the high school students had done.