North Star beach field trip reaps rich rewards

Posted: Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Many Kenai Peninsula school classes make field trips to the beach this time of year. Some even travel across the water at Seward or Kachemak Bay to seek out the most spectacular tide pools and other habitats.

But North Star Elementary School teacher Sherry Matson went further.

After getting hooked on marine biology herself, she made special arrangements for her students to spend four days at the marine science laboratory at Kasitsna Bay.

The kids still are thrilled about their experience.

"Have you ever seen a barnacle eat? It has little feet. It's so cool," said fifth-grader Shaelynn Galloway.

"The pink chitons were my favorite."

Students' activities included arts, crafts and a variety of outdoor activities, including a clam bake at McDonald Spit and learning how to float in survival suits.

But watching sea creatures at the Jakolof beach was the centerpiece of the adventure.

Matson used the opportunity to teach them how to read the tide tables.

Students wore gloves and learned to observe the animals without injuring them or disturbing their homes. The carefully removed a few specimens and took them to the lab for closer observation before releasing them. They also took digital photos to document their finds.


Wiley Bennett rapels down a small cliff on the protected side of MacDonald Spit, while Matson offers encouragement

Photo courtesy of North Star Elementary

"Those kids were so respectful," Matson said. "On the beach, they were delighted by the environment."

Sixth-grader Ryan Hobbs recently moved to the area from St. Louis and had never experience the marine environment before. The trip wowed him.

"During the day we would go for walks," he said.

"The reason we went at this time was because of the low tides so we could see our animals."

For his favorite beach animal, he picked the pycnopodia, or sunflower star.

But Hobbs expressed enthusiasm for the sea anemones, as well.

Those look like flowers but are animals related to jelly fish. They can live for hundreds of years. Most of the time they sit almost motionless, their tentacles waving in the currents. But if food comes their way, the scene changes.

"When something falls in it, their tentacles swoop in," Hobbs said, gesturing to demonstrate the action.

Even Matson found some surprises on the beach this year, notably a bizarre critter called a skeleton shrimp that looks like a terrestrial walking stick insect.

"I've been on these trips for 15 years, and I'd never seen one of these," she said.

Ever since their return April 29, Matson's fifth- and sixth-grade students have been busy with interdisciplinary projects, building on their experience. They are creating a hall mural, scrapbooks, term papers and even imaginary animals.


Tasha Thompson looks at a small Solaster is the powerful UAF microscopes.

Photo courtesy of North Star Elementary

The work enhances their knowledge not only of science, but also of reading, writing, art and math. Matson also uses subject matter from the trip for spelling and grammar lessons.

For example, sixth-grader Elliott Tuttle drew an imaginary animal but turned to a book of Latin and Greek roots to come up with a suitable scientific name for his creation. He dubbed it "ceratodasyrana," meaning "horned, hairy frog."

The class will be working on the unit for the rest of the school year.

Matson began taking students on marine science field trips to Kachemak Bay in the late 1980s. A course there for educators piqued her interest.

"It got me so excited," she said.

She began taking more courses in marine biology during her summers.

She moved from teaching second grade to sixth grade. They had so much to do at the beach that she kept making the trips longer. She also moved the trip from China Poot and Peterson Bay, where most school groups go, to the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory.

The lab, near Seldovia, is the same facility where University of Alaska students do field research. The university leases it from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Indoors, it has advanced laboratory tools such as microscopes and saltwater tanks. Outdoors, the lab sits in one of the most scenic nooks of Kachemak Bay with easy boat access to McDonald Spit and Jakolof Bay, home of one of the most abundant and diverse intertidal organism communities anywhere.

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