Mt. Eccles introduces unorthodox ‘survival science’ program

Sixth graders learn engineering by building huts

Ethan Yingling emerges from his team’s shelter. Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, students from Mt. Eccles Elementary School built shelters using natural materials found in Chugach National Forest. Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
Ethan Yingling emerges from his team’s shelter. Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, students from Mt. Eccles Elementary School built shelters using natural materials found in Chugach National Forest. Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Mt. Eccles sixth graders spent the first week of school hunting Martians and building forts in the woods. But these students weren’t playing hooky — they were studying engineering through an unorthodox program developed by teacher Krysta Williams.

“It’s easier to think outside the box when you’re not in one,” Williams said. “If I can get kids outside of the classroom to do activities, it really changes their dynamic and behavior.”

During Welcome Week, sixth graders learned how to design buildings not by poring through books, but by competing to build heat-conserving shelters using natural materials found in Chugach National Forest. Groups used sticks, leaves and moss to erect walls and plug cracks in their lean-to or teepee-style dwellings. Some shelters were modified on the fly, as doorways were made as snug as possible to avoid releasing heat. After two hours, the students had constructed four surprisingly presentable buildings, one of which was outfitted with a water tap made from a hollowed-out stick. At the end of the Aug. 23 exercise, shelters were assessed for heat retention by comparing inside and outside air temperature.

Williams was assisted by the Copper River Watershed Project, the Forestry Service and parent volunteers who helped make sure that children didn’t go astray in the dense brush.

Williams first tried shelter-building in 2018, connecting it to a social studies unit on the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. In 2020, she hopes to expand the activity to include fifth-graders, she said.

Other Welcome Week activities included an exercise in which students, acting as scientists recently arrived on Mars, calculated whether alien footprints were made by a creature larger or smaller than them. As well as learning to calculate an object’s length and volume, students got to know one another in a situation requiring collaboration and compromise. These activities served as icebreakers for the 2019-20 school year, Williams said.

“Teachers throughout Cordova focus on creating the right culture in our classrooms at the beginning of the year,” Williams said. “We want to really make sure that students get to know each other. These kinds of fun, team-building activities set the stage and make personal connections that help us support each other in the classroom as we’re getting into more challenging academic activities.”