High school students in rural Alaska face multiple roadblocks on the path to college and to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.

Many rural students come from low income backgrounds and have never had family members attend college. Many live in impoverished communities inaccessible by road and many are Alaska Natives, an underrepresented minority. Many also attend underachieving schools, making it difficult to interest them in STEM fields or college in general.

And yet these students live in the midst of tremendous opportunity, in the form of the limitless wilderness and abundant resources surrounding them.

Over the course of the three-year project, 60 low-income, prospective first-generation college students from five rural high schools will take special elective classes during the Upward Bound summer program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), in which they will learn UAV and GIS operation, science materials and methods, and science communication and leadership skills. They will then return to their home communities where, with academic-year Upward Bound support, they will then use UAV’s as the basis for a local mapping project, which will be selected and designed in conjunction with community leaders. 

Project results will be presented by students at annual public meetings, and will be demonstrated for a nationwide audience of STEM educators at a workshop at the close of the project. Students will also work with a professional videographer to document the project for both students and educators. Project outcomes will be assiduously tracked by an external evaluator to gauge progress and success.

The purpose of the Upward Bound program is to improve college matriculation by low-income and prospective first-generation college students by providing them with information, encouragement and skills.

Modern Blanket Toss participants will come from the ranks of UAF Upward Bound students. Begun at UAF in 1968, Upward Bound is a secondary education program within the UAF Division of General Studies which works with low-income, high-risk high school students who are identified as the first in their families to attend college.

UAF Upward Bound has two distinct components

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First, the program offers academic services to 160 eligible students from 10 target high schools around Alaska, five of which will take part in this project. All 10 schools’ communities are typically classified as low income with low parental education levels, high dropout rates, and low college attendance rates. One faculty member at each school is hired as an Upward Bound coordinator, who conducts weekly after school study and tutoring sessions with students. Twice each month coordinators also discuss other topics with students including study skills; test-taking strategies; standardized tests; career aspirations; postsecondary education options; financial literacy; understanding scholarships and college entrance requirements; financial aid; and planning community service and cultural events.

 

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Second, each year 50 Upward Bound students participate in a six-week summer program held on the UAF campus. Participating students have the opportunity to experience the collegiate lifestyle while also gaining tools key to successfully starting their postsecondary education. Core classes include language arts; mathematics; laboratory science; foreign languages; technology skills; study skills; service learning; and financial literacy. 

All participants take two core courses and an elective course each summer. UAF Upward Bound students also receive extensive training in academic applications of modern information and communication devices, including iPads, iTouches, and NikeFuel bands. 

Upward Bound also embraces the use of cyber-technology for distance education, a method that will be used to deliver learning content throughout this project.

UB Summer Sessions and the Academic School year

In 2014-2016, a total of 60 students (20 per year) from the four Modern Blanket Toss schools, as well as the coordinators from each site, will take part in UAV and science communication/leadership training as part of their six-week summer Upward Bound experience on the UAF campus. Each school cohort will consist of 15 students each year, of which approximately five will attend the summer sessions each year; it is thus anticipated that all 60 students will have an opportunity to attend a summer Upward Bound session over the three years of the project. One student at each site will be designated a Student Leader, responsible for helping conduct the program in a position analogous to a teaching assistant.

Following summer instruction, students return to their communities for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years and conduct learning activities and experiments with UAVs and GIS software under the guidance of both local Upward Bound coordinators and statewide coordinators in Fairbanks. Activities will include mapping, simulated search-and-rescues, aerial photography, weather studies, and other exercises that take advantage of the vehicles’ capabilities and increase STEM awareness. 

Students will then use their new UAV and leadership skills to work with community members in identifying a project that uses UAVs to address a local challenge. 

UAVs in Alaska

Alaska is an appropriate spot to stage this project both because of its particular educational challenges and because of its existing expertise in the field of unmanned aircraft systems. Alaska’s vast size, scattered infrastructure and harsh conditions have made it an ideal proving ground for new UAV technology for civil, commercial and scientific applications (ACUASI, 2013). This holds especially true for the rural areas that are the focus of this proposal, which are surrounded by wilderness inhospitable to traditional exploration by land.

The UAF Geophysical Institute has taken the lead in developing and field-testing UAV’s in Alaska, for use in applications such as resource mapping; monitoring marine mammals; fighting forest fires; and mapping glaciers and sea ice. 

UAF is the only university in the world to regularly use UAV’s for real-world mapping, research and emergency response missions, and has been contracted to assist in efforts across the U.S. and abroad, including missions in Chile, South Africa and Iceland. 

UAF recently established the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) to provide structure, visibility and support for the UAV program and to expand UAV research and education. ACUASI is currently working to establish outreach and external engagement programs; hence the organization’s interest in leveraging EPSCoR and Upward Bound efforts in this project.

The growing value of UAV’s is being recognized nationwide. UAVs, and their development at UAF, are specifically cited in the state’s Science and Technology Plan (Alaska SCoR, 2012) and have drawn both attention and funding from the state legislature. 

 

Why UAVs?

UAVs are an ideal means with which to interest students in STEM, as they constitute an appealing and hands-on research tool which can be directly applied to productive, science-based problem-solving within the students’ home communities. They also require students to understand basics of physics, meteorology and other fields, which will be taught both by Upward Bound instructors and through experts at UAF, an international leader in frontier UAV research. The project takes its name from an ancient Inuit practice in which members of a tribe flung a person aloft by pulling together on a large blanket, enabling the individual to scan the horizon for distant game. By combining UAV technology with exemplary practices in STEM education that involve students in critical thinking, interactive learning, and meaningful, real-world challenges, the Modern Blanket Toss will serve a similar purpose - literally giving students a bird’s-eye view of their communities, and figuratively expanding their horizons by exciting them about continuing education and about STEM careers.