Science teachers at Kenai Central High School don't root for their students to hit snags in their Caring for the Kenai projects, but it's also difficult to mind much when they do, since that's when the most real-life learning takes place.
"It's part of our science curriculum and has students take real-world problems locally and work on solutions using classroom knowledge and content. Students have an amazing educational experience in the real world as a result of that competition," said Rick Frederic.
Frederic and fellow KCHS teacher Kristin Davis have all their ninth-graders participate in the contest, which challenges students to think of a way to improve the Kenai Peninsula's environment or prepare for a natural disaster. Students research and develop their idea and see what it would take to make it happen, working with agencies, businesses and individuals related to their idea.
"Caring for the Kenai gives my students a chance to get involved in their community and solve real problems. They can have experiences they might not otherwise have in classroom-only learning," Frederic said.
Some of the best innovations have come with projects that had to be re-thought, re-approached or re-imagined when students ran afoul of the dreaded real-world specter: circumstances beyond their control.
The winner two years ago, Olivia Pfeifer, from KCHS, had to scramble to get her project to completion. She wanted to use a dog to keep birds off local runways, got permission from municipal authorities to do so, raised money and found a kennel that produces dogs with such training, but the kennel lost its license and Pfeifer had to find a new dog.
"Olivia had to scramble to find a different kennel, but through her tenacity and contacts she made through her project, she was able to locate a kennel and bring a dog to Kenai last summer. Her project was a great success," Davis said. "This project shows what amazing ideas our kids have and what they can really accomplish when provided with an opportunity."
The program takes what students learn in class and applies it beyond the walls of the school by getting students thinking critically about problems in their community and using their skills and knowledge to try and solve those problems.
"Students gain an understanding of local environmental concerns. They also learn what it's like to research and try to solve problems in the real world and deal with community organizations, government offices, and the web to get research and information for solving the problem they select," Frederic said.
Frederic and Davis, as well as Principal Alan Fields, said they have been pleased with how the Caring for the Kenai program has flourished at Kenai Central. Five of the 20 Caring for the Kenai winners have been from Kenai Central. Of those, Lincoln Wensley, the 2008-09 winner, was selected for the President's Environmental Youth Award from the Environmental Protection Agency. The 2005-06 winner, Hannah Watkins, from KCHS, was chosen as the 2006 Prudential Spirit of Community Award recipient, and last year's winner, Freya Chay, of KCHS, was one of six U.S. students to receive the prestigious Brower Youth Award.
This year, eight of the 23 semi-finalists are from Kenai Central. The 12 finalists will be announced and compete in oral presentations April 21. The students get cash prizes, and the schools they represent get funds to purchase technology and educational materials.
This year's winners will be celebrated at an annual banquet April 30, but regardless of placement, everyone comes out ahead just from participating in such a rich learning experience.
"This is a difficult assignment for all students. They learn they can be successful in anything they do if they keep at it and persist," Frederic said.
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