Field trips, for most students, mean a ride in a van or, at most, a boat trip. But for students at E.L. Bartlett School in Tyonek, a trip out of town requires an airplane.
Airplane rides are usually too expensive for school outings, but the students were the lucky beneficiaries of a gift from Phillips Alaska Inc.
The Dena'ina Athabaskan village of Tyonek, on the west side of Cook Inlet, is the only community in the Kenai Peninsula Borough not on the Kenai Peninsula. Its closest neighbors are the Beluga gas field camp and the offshore Tyonek Oil Platform, both run by Phillips.
Phillips offers tours to student groups, but for the Tyonek school the corporation also donated a round-trip charter flight and a morning mission at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai last week.
"This is a kind of unique deal," said Steve Arbelovsky, Phillips' Cook Inlet operations manager.
"Because of their isolation, this is something we wanted to do."
Phillips used to invite Tyonek students a few at a time to tour its offshore platforms, but the program faded out about a decade ago.
Fred Colvin, a former Tyonek teacher, returned to the village this fall to take the post of principal-teacher. He recalled participating in the trips and contacted Phillips about starting tours again.
"I thought it was a great idea," Arbelovsky said.
Construction at the offshore platforms ruled out a student visit, so the company offered to bring the school group to the plant.
"We were also able to offer it to more kids," he said.
Colvin said he was thrilled by the change of plans, because he had been trying to figure out a way to get his students to the Challenger Center.
"It turned out to be a wonderful irony," he said.
Twelve students in grades six through 11 and two teachers spent Tuesday in Kenai and Nikiski. They spent the morning at the Challenger Center. After a shopping interlude, they reported to the Phillips plant on the Kenai Spur Highway for a tour of the liquefied natural gas manufacturing facility.
Arbelovsky and his staff provided dramatic demonstrations of LNG's properties, which combine the icy physics of super-cold liquids and the flammability of fuel gas.
Jed Watkins, a senior production engineering specialist, showed the group an insulated canister of LNG, which looks like water but registers minus 258 degrees Fahrenheit on a thermometer.
Such cold has dramatic effects on everyday objects. The LNG renders steel brittle and makes anything it contacts ice up and put off clouds of water vapor steam. An ordinary cube of water ice makes LNG boil vigorously. To handle LNG, parts at the plant are made from aluminum or stainless steel, which resist cracking at the unearthly temperatures.
Plant shift supervisor John Camp guided the students through the plant grounds. They walked through the turbine room of gargantuan machinery; paused in the control room with its diagrams, dials, control screens and video monitors; and went outside to look at the cooling towers, storage tanks and exhaust flame.
Afterward, seventh-grader Molly Bartels told Colvin the trip was fun.
"The Phillips plant was so cool because we got to light a big fire and wear hard hats," she said.
The students and teachers presented a poster of thanks to Arbelovsky before heading to the Kenai airport for their return flight.
Phillips has had a history of reaching out to its neighbors, especially young people. It offers tours to employees, potential customers, civic groups and students as young as the third grade, Arbelovsky said.
"It is a way for us to get some kids, show them a vocation and maybe spark some interest in math and science," he said.
He recommended that any teachers or home school groups interested should call the plant about arranging a tour.
"We would accommodate that," he said, "as part of being your neighbors here on the North Road."
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