The smell of boiled meat filled the air in the portable classroom building next to Cooper Landing Elementary School on Tuesday -- but it wasn't making anyone hungry.
Throughout the room, students dressed in grubby clothes or covered in black plastic garbage bags knelt on newspapers and tarps, scraping the meat and cartilage from the boiled bones of a brown bear.
Most of the 21 kindergarten through sixth-grade students were enjoying the activity.
"I like cleaning them, because it's fun and messy," said sixth-grader Marisa Skolnick.
"It's fun," agreed sixth-grader Joshua Hawthorne. "I'm helping with the rib cage, which was huge when we started. What I want to work on is a paw, though. I like all the little bones."
Of course, not all the students enjoyed the mess.
"It's kind of a little gross," admitted Cheyenne Peterson.
But whether they were enjoying the manual labor or not, all the students were learning from the activity.
The bone cleaning was the first step in a bear skeleton articulation project that is serving as the base of several units at the school throughout the school year. Students will finish cleaning the bones this week, then the pieces of the skeleton will be treated with chemicals for a few weeks. Later in the year, the students will sort through the bones and put the entire skeleton back together, and it will be displayed in a community museum in Cooper Landing.
Teacher Sheryl Sotelo said the skeleton will be one of few, if not the only, adult brown bear skeleton on display at a museum between Alaska and San Diego.
But that's not all the project is about, she said.
It's also the base for a number of units of study at the school this year, including human anatomy and ecology.
As students study the bear skeleton, they also are learning about their own bodies.
Nicole Johnson of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, second from left, works with children at Cooper Landing Elementary School as they clean meat from the bones of a brown bear Tuesday morning.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"They're similar in a lot of ways," Sotelo said. "Yesterday we saw a ball and socket joint, like in our shoulders. It's neat seeing it in real life versus a book.
"Students also saw the tendons that look like rubber bands on the paws and can understand better how our fingers work."
They also are studying bear physiology and some of the research scientists are doing on bears. For example, Sotelo said, bears don't suffer heart attacks or hardening of the arteries -- conditions that cause major health problems in humans.
"If only we could unlock the secrets of those special features," Sotelo said.
In addition, the skeleton articulation provides a base for the students to study Alaska ecology. The class is talking about protecting bear habitats and how to decrease human-bear interactions which often lead to bears being killed in defense of life or property, Sotelo said.
Students are designing signs for Dumpsters and brochures to make available at the museum near the bear skeleton and coming up with ideas to continue protecting bears.
Joshua said people need to remember to keep food indoors, put trash in bear-proof containers and avoid building on bear habitat lands. He added that he thinks there should be highway signs warning drivers to watch for bears -- similar to the signs that warn of moose and caribou.
The bear the students were working with was actually hit by a car in the Kenai area this summer, just one day after the school put in a request for a bear body. The 20-year-old, 9-foot brown bear suffered six broken ribs, a broken femur and injuries where the spine and pelvis connect, the students said after examining the bones. The bear had to be put down after the accident.
Sixth-grader Mike Williams said that protecting bears is important because of their role in the environment and economy of the Kenai Peninsula.
"Their part of our natural resources," he said. "Tourists come up here to see bears. If there are no bears, there would be no tourists. If there were no tourists, there would be no money for schools or roads."
"I'm really impressed with the students' level of care and interest," Sotelo said. "They're very sharp and aware, they care about making a difference and giving back to the community."
And the community is showing an interest in the students as well.
Marisa Skolnick scrapes tissue from one of the bear's paws.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The kids were not the only ones cleaning bones Tuesday -- they were joined by parents, representatives from the U.S. Forest Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a number of other community members who are sharing their experience, expertise or even just lending their hands for some work.
An area taxidermist skinned the bear for reduced price, and a local veterinarian took X-rays of the bear's paws to help students put the complex bones back together.
And the school's parent advisory committee also provided $500 for the school to buy supplies for the project, though Sotelo said more money will still be needed to complete the skeleton.
"It's so neat to see all these people working together toward a common goal," Sotelo said. "We couldn't have done it without the adult volunteers."
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