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“And today I’ve brought a special guest to help us learn about seabirds!” said Kari Paustian, Sitka Sound Science Center’s education coordinator to introduce me. I smiled, waved, and plopped down cross-legged in front of a wiggly group of kindergartners.
“Did you know that you and I have something in common?” I asked them.
I usually get blank stares at this point. Seriously? Come on lady, you are old, and we were just told you’re a doctor who studies seabirds.
“I grew up in Sitka just like you!”
This is one of my favorite parts of a several-day series of lessons about seabirds I helped develop over the past few years as part of the Sitka Sound Science Center’s Scientists in the School program. For more than a decade, the program has exposed students in every classroom at every grade level to a wide variety of scientific disciplines, using hands-on, engaging classroom and field experiences. Led by professional scientists and Science Center educators, SIS units inspire and empower youth to see themselves as scientists, think critically, and build deeper understandings of ecological systems.
“You talk like us,” one student said as I shared a series of photos of myself in kindergarten as proof that I actually was once the same age as them and grew up in Sitka, too. Now I work with people from all over the world to keep Alaska's oceans healthy for the people and wildlife that depend on them as part of WWF's conservation mission.
Over the course of my week in Sitka, I visited each class three times. We talked about what makes a bird a bird, pretended to be birds (many, many times), role-played as seabird scientists, and discussed how seabirds are indicators of ocean health. We visited a classroom-friendly version of a seabird colony—a model with stuffed birds and photo cut-outs—near Sitka and explored the idea of niche partitioning—when two or more species divide resources to coexist—in two activities to learn how so many seabirds can nest on one island and still find enough food to eat and space to lay their eggs.
This year we added a third lesson. I teamed up with Kristina Tirman, Ocean Conservancy’s Alaska marine debris manager, to more clearly connect the idea of seabirds and ocean health to things that kindergartners may be able to do in their own lives. Kristina and I developed most of the seabird lessons during her time as education coordinator for the Sitka Sound Science Center, including a video series that students could watch from home during the Covid-19 pandemic in which I transformed my dog into a seabird.
To wrap up the week we had kindergartners pretend they were birds called storm-petrels and forage for food in a healthy ocean and an unhealthy ocean. In pairs, students took turns being an adult and a chick, with the adult scooping pom poms from the ocean tubs and regurgitating them into their chick’s “stomach.” We then sorted the stomach contents, counting each fish, zooplankton, and—in the unhealthy ocean—plastic piece and combined all the numbers. In the unhealthy ocean over half of the chick’s stomach was taken up by indigestible plastic! Everyone agreed that was not good.
“What can you do to keep the ocean healthy?” we asked. Removing plastic was by far the most popular answer, with some innovative ideas about how to do it. We also discussed possible places for change in the school, including using reusable water containers, paper, or metal cups instead of plastic ones, and what a difference it would make to swap out the Styrofoam and plastic that school lunches are packaged in for a non-plastic alternative. Kari wrapped up the lesson by reminding each class that even though they might think that they are “just kindergartners” and that plastics in the ocean is a really big problem, adults listen to kids.
With a flash of her biodegradable fabulous Friday glitter, she closed the week out saying, “The adults in your life love and care about you, and if you tell them that you care about something, or that you are concerned about something, they will listen.”
The Sitka Sound Science Center’s Scientists in the School program is currently funded by EpSCOR and a generous donation from Royal Caribbean Group.