A new class is making a splash at Kenai Alternative School.
Teacher Mike Williamson, new to the school this year, is leading a marine and fisheries technology class he developed while teaching in the Bush.
Students in the class are learning skills that could help them get a leg up in Alaska's water-based careers, but they also are learning valuable safety information that could save lives in an emergency.
Thursday and Friday, Williamson took the 15-member class to Nikiski pool for a lesson in using survival suits.
The students, who range in age from 13 to 18, said the outing was the high point so far in a class that is generating enthusiasm.
"It's a pretty cool class," said senior Niles Henke.
In Nikiski, he and the others took turns donning the bright orange, insulated suits and jumping into the deep section of the pool.
Henke admitted that his marine experience before the class was limited to rides on the state ferry. But he is considering summer fishing boat jobs as a future option, especially since he has gotten involved in Williamson's class.
The survival suit lesson held a few surprises for him. He ended up sharing the suit with a large bubble of air.
"I was a little bit sideways and all the air was tipping me over," he said.
"I didn't think the suit would support me so much. It was like a really large life vest."
Williamson showed the students how to put the suits on, the best way to jump in the water, how to maneuver while floating and how to raft together.
Another senior, Heather Reinarz, said the course's hands-on approach is popular with the students.
"It's way better. You learn way easier than if he throws a book at you and says, 'Learn this,'" she said. "And Mike's a cool teacher, too."
Their classmate Mike Lasky has more background with boating, as he has gone out on a long-line boat near his former home at Adak. He said he has been impressed by the practical credentials the course brings to the students.
By the time they finish the course, they will have cards for first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and an online boating safety course run by the Boat Owners Association of the United States.
The broader goal of the course is to provide students with an understanding of maritime occupations. It includes experiences and information on boat construction, nomenclature, safety and legal requirements, navigation, piloting, seamanship, weather and fishing.
Williamson said one reason he offers the course is because boating safety is a major issue in Alaska. Studies show that most Alaskans who die in boating mishaps have no safety training.
"Alaska leads the nation in (boating) fatalities," he said.
Vital to the course is the array of resources available here and now addressing the subject.
Williamson praised the agencies and businesses that have supported the course by providing free or loaned material.
The state of Alaska, which is boosting its boating safety education following new legislation enacted in May 2000, provided copies of its new boaters' handbook. Chief Warrant Officer Ron Bennett, a marine inspector with the U.S. Coast Guard, came in to speak with students; school nurse Pam Howard gave them first aid instruction; and the Soldotna Fred Meyer store donated tide books. Other publications came from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service's Alaska Outer Continental Shelf Regional Office.
Williamson's brother, Jim Williamson of the fishing boat J. Lynn D., and Kevin Christianson of the Christie B. loaned the survival suits the class used.
One resource Williamson recommends to the general public is the online safety course. Available at BoatUS.com, the BoatU.S. Foundation On-Line Boating Safety Course is approved by the National Asso-ciation of State Boating Law Administrators and recognized by the Coast Guard.
Photo by SHANA LOSHBAUGH
By now, even before the end of the school year's first quarter, about three-fourths of his students already have completed the online course successfully, he said.
Dennis Dunn, the school's principal-teacher, also is jazzed about the way the course is working out.
"What's exciting for me is I see our kids getting a high-quality educational experience. The other thing I like is that it is 'outside the box,'" he said.
"School can be fun."
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