National Geographic Society Newsroom

Alaska and Montana Bear Researchers Bring STEM Program to Anchorage Science Teachers

Here in the Municipality of Anchorage, Alaska there are a lot of bears, and a lot of soon-to-be young bear scientists. A pilot program taught by bear biologists was launched in Alaska on Friday at a two-day workshop intended to “teach the teachers” how to conduct bear research and integrate bear biology into the high...

Captive black bear at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Photo by Doug Lindstrand)

Here in the Municipality of Anchorage, Alaska there are a lot of bears, and a lot of soon-to-be young bear scientists. A pilot program taught by bear biologists was launched in Alaska on Friday at a two-day workshop intended to “teach the teachers” how to conduct bear research and integrate bear biology into the high school classroom.

The curriculum is much about bears and much about STEM — the US government acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. The objective is to make our future brighter by making our citizenry more competitive in math and science.

Through the Montana-based Bear Trust International (BTI), the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), two Anchorage-area educational institutions, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, high school teachers are being trained to teach bear science through a curriculum based entirely on bear research. Bears may be hibernating for winter, but bear science was on every one’s mind here in Anchorage last weekend.

On Friday BTI launched the pilot training program for its national “Teach the Teachers” curriculum at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, Alaska.  Mike Miller, the Executive Director of AWCC said that “People think of our signature wood bison conservation program as our connection to [Alaska Department of] Fish and Game, but we work with them on many projects like this education program.” As he looked over at two Kodiak yearlings which will remain awake for the winter, he said that “Bears are what people really come to see. They want to learn about bears and they are fascinated by people who research them.”

The workshop included talks from bear researchers, including a presentation by Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Kodiak Island bear biologist, Dr. Larry van Daele.  Larry discussed the years of successful management of bears on Kodiak and suggested that bears respond consistently to people who act consistently. It’s all about respecting bears and teaching bears to respect us,” said van Daele.

Much of the training involved teachers breaking out into groups to explore issues from human-bear conflict to analyzing real data sets provided by bear biologists. It was an intensive inaugural program which sought feedback from teachers on just how to implement real research into the classroom.

In the 2009 State of the Union address, President Obama launched a new campaign to prepare 100,000 STEM teachers with “strong teaching skills and deep content knowledge.”  “This was our focus,” said Steve Mendive, Development Director at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

Steve Mendive, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

In the Spring of 2011, Mendive discovered an opportunity to bring a unique STEM program to Anchorage after visiting the website of Bear Trust International. He had already been tasked with heading up a campaign to bring a new bear science, education, and research facility to the 200 acre, Portage-based wildlife campus. “Education will be a cornerstone of our own BEARS (Bear Education Awareness Research Sanctuary) project. The curriculum developed by Bear Trust International fits right in with our mission” said Mendive.

After contacting Dr. Melissa Reynolds-Hogland, the Executive Director of BTI, he met with representatives from the Anchorage School District, University of Alaska Anchorage and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to explore bringing this bear science curriculum to Anchorage. After some heavy leg work and five months of planning, the Bear Curriculum made its way from Montana to Alaska.

On Saturday the science teachers toured the wildlife campus and watched me demonstrate how we conduct our own research into visual acuity in brown bears through the operant conditioning of our Center’s two Kodiak bears.   I also gave a presentation on the evolutionary history of bears.   From my perspective this workshop provides an opportunity to learn about all kinds of research including collection-based work with our captive ambassadors as well as conventional field work that is critical to the conservation and management of wild bears.

“We have tailored much of our programs in the past to younger students, but now we embark on a mission to teach science teachers and can reach thousands of high school students with this innovative program based on inquiry learning,” said Kelly Miller, Education Director at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

The teachers will receive continuing education credits through the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Sponsors of teach the teacher program include BP, the Kodiak Brown Bear Center (Koniag Native Corp), ADF&G, BTI, AWCC and the Alyeska Resort.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: