Schroeder pitches ANSEP model to reform education

  • Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program founder Herb Schroeder is pitching the successful model for training students in STEM fields as a way to reform the state’s struggling education system. (Photo/Courtesy/University of Alaska Anchorage)

The founder of a wildly successful program initially aimed at preparing Alaska Natives students for college insists there is no good reason the model couldn’t be expanded to help transform Alaska’s entire struggling education system.

Herb Schroeder said the state simply needs the political will to dedicate resources to growing the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program beyond what his team and their industry and charitable partners have already done.

By his count, investing existing education funding into ANSEP-style learning for middle and high school students across Alaska would return a savings of about $25,000 per student to the state, Schroeder told a gathering of Anchorage Chamber of Commerce members Jan. 6.

Started in 1995 at the University of Alaska Anchorage, ANSEP at its core focuses on sparking a student’s interest in science and engineering fields through active, hands-on learning exercises and challenges. According to the UAA, current enrollment and alumni of ANSEP total nearly 2,500 students.

In practice, ANSEP leaders draw willing middle school students from schools across the state and enroll them intense, multi-week sessions, often in summer, that eventually help prepare them for future classes all the way up to the college level.

Schroeder, an engineer, Ph.D. and vice provost of the program, said the first task many ANSEP middle school students tackle after arriving at the UAA campus is building a top-end personal computer.

“The thing about the computer is it’s kind of scary when you start and that’s what we want. We want to present the students with something that’s real intimidating and maybe they think that, ‘I can’t do this,’ and then there’s this sense of exhilaration at the end and they go, ‘Whoa, I want to do something else so I can have that same feeling again,’” Schroeder described.

“We’re looking for that moment when they realize, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do. This is so cool.’”

ANSEP started as a way to prepare Alaska Native students for engineering degrees but Schroeder said the model could be used to support students interested in all degrees and fields of work.

ANSEP recently opened high school Acceleration academies in Anchorage and Palmer that take students from 8th grade to a bachelor’s degree in six years instead of the eight years that the education system is designed for.

By giving the students the tools to gain college credits at the academies they are able to graduate with a degree two years earlier and in the process save the state approximately $25,000 per student; and it can save families up to $50,000 by avoiding two years of tuition, books, and room and board, according to Schroeder.

“You get this thing up to scale and you’re talking about for 100 students, $2.5 million in savings to the state; for 1,000 students, you’re talking about $25 million, so the more you grow this the more you save,” he said, adding that the back-end savings can be reinvested in earlier grades to help inspire more students to care about their education.

Beyond the dollar benefits, it could provide the state with a more educated workforce, he emphasized.

A fundamental goal of the program from its early days has been to have students proficient in basic algebra by the time they leave 8th grade, which Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said is one of his priorities for the state’s K-12 system.

Studies commissioned by the University of Alaska have found between 50 percent and 60 percent of Alaska high school graduates that enroll in the university still need remedial coursework to truly get them ready for college-level classes even if they have taken the requisite classes, which university officials contend is a large reason the UA colleges have less-than-desirable graduation rates; taking remedial classes adds cost and time to their college timelines.

By better preparing the students for college, Schroeder said, the ANSEP model improves outcomes at the college level as well.

ANSEP currently relies on partnerships primarily with federal agencies, large companies and donations from charitable organizations for about 80 percent of its funding, according to Schroeder.

With more secure base funding from the state, he envisions a system of Acceleration academies across the state in hub communities that also have University of Alaska campuses.

“There’s absolutely no reason we can’t do this for every single kid in the state,” he said. “We just need to have the political will to make the transformation and provide the resources so that we can do what we set out to do.”

Legislators that attended the talk expressed immediate interest in finding ways to help expand ANSEP, Schroeder said in a brief interview.

Allowing the state base student allocation, or BSA, to be used for ANSEP would be one way to channel existing K-12 funding to the program, he added, though he has not discussed growing ANSEP directly with Department of Education and Early Development officials.

A spokeswoman for the department said Education Commissioner Michael Johnson is travelling and couldn’t be reached for comment in time for this story.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
01/08/2020 - 9:42am