Bringing Science to Life in Kaktovik, Alaska

Ken Dunton and students in Kaktovik. All images courtesy Ken Dunton From dissecting skates to a GPS unit-driven scavenger hunt in the open fields of northern Alaska, science is brought to life during the week-long Summer Science Program led by researchers based at the University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute.

Kenneth Dunton and colleague Jim McClelland are co-principal investigators of a National Science Foundation-funded research project that includes K-12 science field activities in Kaktovik, Alaska.

Participants in the Summer Science Program gather data using the same equipment as their teacher scientists.

The goal of the Summer Science Program is to bring science alive to the community’s students through practical, hands-on experiences that reinforce existing knowledge and the students’ connections to nature. The measurements students collect are not just for learning purposes, but are an important part of the team’s research.

“The Summer Science program gives kids the opportunity to do field research, work with scientists, graduate students, and science teachers. It’s a hands-on program to expose the kids to science and the scientific method, and how to collect measurements that help them describe their surrounding ecosystem,” Dunton said.

The members of the Student Sampling Program deploy a YSI datasonde at their sampling site in Kaktovik Lagoon.

Ken Dunton: Researcher, Educator and Outreach Coordinator

At the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, Dunton wears many hats. He’s a marine ecologist at the Marine Science Institute whose research interests are focused on understanding the functioning of the ecosystems and their response to climate warming. He examines the fate of plant matter and its connection to food webs and the carbon and nitrogen cycle in coastal marine ecosystems. “It all starts with sunlight and photosynthesis, and I take it from there,” Dunton laughed.

Dunton also teaches graduate and undergraduate marine science courses and serves as faculty advisor to both programs. In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Dunton shows a passion for outreach to K-12 students.

Over the years, he has established programs that place graduate students in K-12 classrooms. The graduate students assist teachers in bringing students into the field and helping them develop solid science lesson plans in everything from physics to biology and chemistry.

The Summer Science Program in Kaktovik is one of many projects that connect Dunton’s research interests and his dedication to science education with communities linked to the coastal areas he studies.

Students explore anatomy by dissecting a spiny dogfish shark.

Sowing the Seeds for Science Field Education

Kaktovik, located within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is a familiar place to Dunton. He first visited Kaktovik as a graduate student in1977. The coastal area east of Kaktovik along the north arctic coast of Alaska, has been the location of much of Dunton’s research on the ecology of lagoon systems over the last three decades. “The village is extremely interested and supportive of what we are doing as scientists,” Dunton said.

That support and interest extends to the children of Kaktovik. The population is small, with only about 250 residents and many of the middle and high school students (around 15-20 children) participate in the activities planned by Dunton and McClelland.

Hands-on Science Activities


As part of their NSF grant, Dunton and McClelland formally began the Summer Science Program in 2011, although the two began engaging Kaktovik’s young residents with the help of the Arctic Refuge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USWF) in 2008.

“The USFWS Arctic Refuge office in Fairbanks has been a critical partner from the start, providing funds, staff members and volunteers, and housing,” Dunton said.

The students usually begin their day around 8 or 9 a.m., sometimes on a research vessel. On the research ship, students have the opportunity to deploy nets and grabs and collect water chemistry data (for example, pH and salinity measurements) using oceanographic instrumentation.

With the help of the boat crew, they also learn the basics of navigation. The students then return to the school lab where they sort their samples and examine them under a microscope. But their engagement in the scientific method doesn’t stop there.

“They keep a field journal of what they’ve seen and what they’ve done, just like a scientist would. They learn the scientific and common names of the things that live in their marine environment,” Dunton explained. “So that takes up a good part of the day, but we also make time for some games and fun outdoor activities.”

Lending a Helping Hand

Students used recycled soda bottles to explore the concept of watersheds and recreate the water cycle.

In addition to the data collected as part of the Summer Science Program, the students also give Dunton and McClelland a helping hand in gathering information for some of their ongoing research projects.

“We know that there are important processes going on under the ice, particularly during the period just before the ice breaks up, roughly April to July, but we can’t be there continuously,” Dunton said. “…This is the period where the rivers start to flow, ice melts and a flood of water from a variety of sources enters the lagoon system.”

After Dunton and McClelland’s crew return to Texas, his students in Kaktovik, along with village elders, assist with sample collection. Using the same equipment as the scientists, they collect data on temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, and chlorophyll from nearby bodies of water.

The science team uses these data to fill data gaps during their period of absence and confirm the measurements made by remotely deployed instruments on the seabed.

“They [the students] collect these measurements at different water depths for us so we can look at the stratification in the water column,” Dunton explained. “This tells us something about the timing and magnitude of the inflows and how the system changes hydrologically over break-up.”

The student scientists also gather water samples for nutrient analysis and set traps to collect marine invertebrates for Dunton and McClelland. These measurements are important in assessing productivity and establishing trophic relationships among organisms.

A Learning Exchange

Just like with any good collaboration, everyone involved in the Summer Science Program learns something new-- even the scientists.  The last several years of working with the students in Kaktovik has given Dunton new insight in to a unique culture and way of viewing nature.

“The students are very tuned into nature. They live a subsistence lifestyle. This means they must hunt and fish to survive. When they talk about food webs, they always include themselves. That’s really unique. They realize that they are an integral part of the ecosystem, whereas students here [in Texas] don’t capture that concept as easily,” Dunton said.

For more information on Kenneth Dunton and the Summer Science Program in Kaktovik, visit:


--Alicia Clarke