Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Introducing the Geosciences to Alaska Natives Via the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI)

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Introducing the Geosciences to Alaska Natives Via the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI)

Article excerpt


The Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) is an intensive, six-week residential high school-to-college bridging program aimed at preparing talented rural Alaska youth for the social and academic challenges of college. Since its inception in 1983, RAHI has demonstrated that it is an effective means of encouraging Alaska Native students to attend college and finish a post-secondary degree. Since 2003, a four credit, college-level, field-intensive, introductory geoscience course has been part of the RAHI curriculum. While it is difficult to evaluate what effect this specific course is having on the long term goal of recruiting more minority geoscientists, short term indicators suggest that the course is very effective in increasing the visibility of geology as a desirable career option amongst college-bound Alaska Native youth.


Active geologic processes are a hallmark of Alaska, with abundant glaciers, active and widespread volcanism and recurrent seismicity. Because of its arctic location, Alaska may already be feeling the effects of global warming, with local melting of permafrost and associated changes in the landscape. And since oil and minerals form the backbone of the state's economy, most Alaskans derive some economic benefit from the state's many geologic resources.

Alaska's citizens, both Native and non-Native, are increasingly asked to make decisions on complicated technical and scientific issues surrounding geohazard remediation, resource development, and conservation. An understanding of the geosciences is particularly important to rural Alaska Native communities, since that is where geohazards can be the most extreme and resource development is most likely to occur. As part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, regional Native corporations were formed with local Alaska Native shareholders. These corporations are tasked with the social and economic development of Alaska Native communities. However, most Alaska Natives lack the scientific training to adequately evaluate either their own natural resources or the geohazards that may affect their community. Consequently, much of this scientific work is done by non-shareholders who are not themselves Alaska Natives.

Despite this need for trained Alaska Native geoscientists, few Alaska Natives choose to study geoscience. Professions such as medicine, engineering, and law are considered to be the best potential avenues for economic advancement, so opportunities in the geosciences are commonly overlooked. Few Alaska Native students graduating from high school know what a geoscientist does, and many have never met one.

Compounding this problem is the fact that approximately half of the Alaska Native population lives in small rural communities that are frequently inaccessible except by air. Historically, secondary education in many of these communities has been limited. Prior to the Molly Hootch decision in 1976, children in most rural Alaska Native villages rarely had access to education beyond grade 8; the educational solution was to send the most promising Alaska Native teens to boarding school for high school (Cotton, 1984). However, this practice had severe emotional and social repercussions for the Alaska Native youth and their communities (Kleinfeld, 1973). Dropout rates were high, risky behaviors amongst the adolescents increased, and villages lost an entire generation for 9 months at a time. The practice of sending Alaska Native youth to boarding schools ended in 1976 with the Molly Hootch case and an effort was made to educate high school students in their home community. However, today many of these high schools are small, with few faculty and limited educational scope (Kleinfeld, 1985). For those Alaska Native high school students wishing to attend college, the academic and social transition from their small communities to the larger and much more 'Western' culture found on a university campus can be especially daunting. …

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