March 2006: Pratt Museum High School Summer Internship Program
Imagine disembarking a small floatplane within an Alaskan game sanctuary and standing about 100 feet from a brown bear mother and her cub. Now imagine having this experience as a fourteen-year-old and having the opportunity to tell museum visitors from around the world about your experience. That is just what Evan Smith did in the summer before his sophomore year. The trip to the McNeil State Game Sanctuary was one of several once-in-a-lifetime experiences arranged for high school students who participate in the Pratt Museum’s summer internship program.
The summer internship program is one way that the museum addresses the national need to provide students with national history and science education and provide job opportunities for local teens. It also helps build the staff capacity of the museum to meet the needs of seasonal visitors.
Each summer the population of Homer, Alaska—a town of 5,000 year-round residents—swells with visitors from the "lower 48" and from around the world. As the only natural history museum in the 25,600-square-mile area of the Kenai Peninsula, the Pratt Museum experiences a jump in visitorship in the warmer months. During this peak period the museum puts four to six high school students to work as interpreters in the exhibit galleries, as mentors to younger participants in the museum’s other summer programs, and as researchers on field research projects.
This intense training for high school students is just one way the Pratt Museum encourages a lifelong understanding and exploration of the natural environment and human experience associated with its special place, the Kachemak Bay in Alaska.
The goal of the Pratt’s summer internship program is to use the museum as a resource for teaching natural history concepts and ethical behavior while providing hands-on learning experience in science, culture, and humanities, as well as practical life skills such as researching and public speaking.
Through the program, the museum also hopes to deepen its connection to its community, provide meaningful learning experiences, and cultivate young friends and supporters who will feel comfortable using the museum throughout their lives.
The program began 13 years ago, when the museum initiated a five-year marine science program with Homer High School. It was a collaboration that involved students, parents, scientists, educators, staff from many public agencies, community members, and museum staff. The effort used as a focus some recently salvaged skeletal remains of a beached sperm whale. With a foundation grant, the museum created a project for students to research, document, preserve, reassemble (or articulate), and display the whale skeleton while learning about ocean conservation.
Since then, the summer internship program has exposed high school students to some of the museum’s most exciting community collaborations and field research activities while enabling them to experience many facets of museum work. The students have assisted with the museum’s special speakers series, worked on the development of exhibits, prepared artwork and copy for identification cards used in galleries and the botanical garden, tested education resource kits, conducted user surveys, given tours of the museum’s downtown forest trail, developed an outdoor art exhibit, helped artists with the installation of their pieces, and even served as hosts during exhibit openings.
Lois Bettini, Pratt Director of Education, and Gale Parsons, Exhibits Director and Cultural Liaison, strive to make the museum a place of learning and of fun. The interns are required to work 20 hours a week (earning eight dollars an hour), yet they usually end up spending additional time at the museum, either volunteering or hanging around with friends. The internships are open to all sophomores, juniors, and seniors regardless of academic abilities.
The summer internship program serves the town’s single high school, with a student population of approximately 475, as well as the rural and remote schools in the surrounding Kachemak Bay region, which may have as few as three high school students. The program is also available to the region’s significant number of home-schooled and alternative high school students, who are frequent users of the museum’s resources. All interested students in the region are encouraged to participate.
Through a required special project, each intern is encouraged to individualize his or her experience by exploring areas of personal interest. Because the museum is a cultural and fine arts center, as well as natural history institution, there is a broad spectrum of possibilities, something for every learning style. Sometimes students prepare artwork, write a research paper, or help design exhibits.
No matter their special interest, interns must be enthusiastic about science and natural history, willing to communicate with museum visitors, willing to use video and computer technology, be able to participate in fieldtrips, and have an interest in bears.
One of the museum’s most popular attractions is a live Bear Cam that has been on and offline over the years, depending on funding and other factors. Visitors can manipulate a joystick to train a remote camera on brown bears that congregate at the falls on McNeil River each summer to catch salmon. The study of bear behavior is more than an abstract scientific pursuit. People sometimes encounter black bears in and around Homer, and bear safety (and human safety around bears) is a priority for the tourism industry as well as the museum.
Student Evan Smith found it hard to articulate just how powerful his experience with the bears was. He said, "You just see things that you never could possibly imagine until you actually go do it." But Smith, now a junior at Yale University, has no trouble sharing his knowledge of bear biology and behavior. He can describe how bears have become habituated to human presence in the park, explain the code of behavior required for a safe bear encounter, and even share hair-raising stories of experiences biologists have had with alpha male bears. He thoroughly enjoyed his time discussing bears with groups of museum visitors, saying the experience taught him how to speak to people from all walks of life. These are skills he used in college interviews, as captain of Yale’s water polo team, and at his summer job working with hundreds of tourists who go charter fishing in Homer.
Brie Miles-Brache, on the other hand, did not quickly embrace the public speaking aspects of her two internships at the museum. Yet, as she learned about the Native Alaskan Tribes and became proficient at leading tours through the museum’s exhibit on the tribes, her speaking skills greatly improved. She became involved with the museum through its program for middle-schoolers and continued on for two high school summer internships. Now a freshman at Guilford College in North Carolina, Miles-Brache fondly remembers how as an intern she shared her knowledge with the middle school students.
Travis Hines is a pre-med freshman at Montana State University. In addition to preparing for a two-week archeological dig, he helped articulate skeletons of a black bear and a walrus. These activities paid direct dividends for his college biology class. His experience deepened his respect for the museum, which, he said, has amazing resources and is an awesome place for learning.
Katrina Dupree traveled from Seward and stayed with her grandparents in Homer to participate in her internship. The field experience during her internship was an archeological dig on an island in Aialik Bay, part of a four-year project with the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Center. Special permission for the dig was obtained from Native Alaskans in the villages of Nanwalek, Port Graham, and Seldovia, and Native Alaskans participated on site and as part of the project’s oral history component.
As members of the Native Alaskan Trabal community, Dupree and her mother experienced the fieldtrip together. Working alongside archeology graduate students and Dr. Aron Crowell of the Arctic Studies Center, Dupree and her mother unearthed Russian coins, beads, shells, and other artifacts. The dig gave Dupree valuable life lessons from her mom and a deeper connection to her grandmother, who told Dupree of fishing expeditions that Dupree’s great-great grandfather made to Aialik Bay. As a result of the experience, the Homer High School senior said she has changed her lifelong career goal. Once she longed to be a physician; now she hopes to enroll at University of Alaska Anchorage to study archeology.
Approximately 30 students have been through the small, but intense program since 1995. In return for the significant investment the Pratt museum makes each year on its interns, Bettini and Parsons said the museum reaps rewards aplenty.