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Robert L. “Bob” “Orpalo” “Tudoc” Valerio, 85, died June 30, 2019, in Seattle.
Girl Scouts learn about STEM topics in KTN
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Anna Ruth shows an image of a liferaft on Saturday during a Scouts STEM event for girls at Schoenbar Middle School. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

A group of Ketchikan’s girls was busy running marine search and rescue drills, assessing heart functions and studying baby chinook salmon Saturday afternoon.

The Girl Scouts of Alaska, in partnership with the Student Conservation Association, hosted a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math event for girls through grade 12. It started at Schoenbar Middle School, with a trip to the Deer Mountain Hatchery included.

At one table in the Schoenbar commons, U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Anna Ruth, commanding officer of the the cutter Bailey T. Barco, led the marine SAR drill. On the table lay a large marine chart. Each girl had a Coast Guard SAR report form in front of her on which to fill out information.

Ruth led them through the skill of finding locations with latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates.  

When they finished that, Ruth held up a photo of a boat in distress.

“This is what they see,” Ruth told the group of girls, about an imagined reporter of the boat’s trouble. “What does it look like to you?”

“It’s sinking,” the group said, in unison.

“This boat is sinking,” Ruth confirmed.

“The helicopter has told you its name is Champion III,” she added. The girls then searched for the correct box to enter the information on their forms.

“I was a Girl Scout from my very youngest age all the way up to senior year,” Ruth explained after the lesson was done. “It’s always been very, very important to me — near and dear to my heart.”

She said she felt that teaching the girls at Saturday’s event about boating and marine safety was extremely important for a few reasons.

“Knowing what happens when you call for help, so you can picture what’s happening and what information you need to give to the Coast Guard to get help” is critically important, she said. If people have more knowledge about boating safety and what the Coast Guard’s role is, that will help them.

“If you are already prepared to handle whatever comes your way, us getting there is just the icing on top of the cake — not the thing you actually need to live,” Ruth said.

Another goal Ruth said she had with volunteering at the event was to reduce the stigma that some people might have that the Coast Guard are only a policing force.

“The Coast Guard isn’t scary. We’re not out writing tickets for the sake of writing tickets. We’re really just trying to make sure you’re OK,” she said.

Another of the three STEM learning stations focused on the medical field.

Mandy Hulstine, a nurse practitioner with Creekside Family Health Clinic, was sharing information about medical careers. She stood next to a tri-fold poster she’d made featuring an illustration of a field of flowers labeled with the many careers the girls could consider.

“The vision is ‘Field of Medicine,’” Hulstine said. She added that she wanted to brighten up this dreary time of year for the girls with the bright flower colors .

She said she had shown the girls videos demonstrating the function of a heart and its chambers, then the girls were given stethoscopes to use to practice listening to each other’s hearts.

The next adventure was a short walk to the hatchery, which is owned and operated by Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association.

Several girls commented on the smell of fish food as they entered the shiny-clean, cool entryway. They were split into three groups to explore the three stations set up by hatchery staff.

At the Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle station, Lead Research Technician Whitney Crittenden demonstrated to her group how to run the remote control unit. The group gathered to watch the computer screen where the live feed showed the view as the ROV slid through the schools of baby chinook salmon in an outdoor concrete pen.

“How many of you guys play video games?” Crittenden asked the girls.

The girls laughed loudly and most raised their hands.

“They’re good skills, if you want to do something like this in the future,” Crittenden told them.

Fourth-grader Zeren Sebcioglu was the first attendee to tackle the controls. She said afterward that it was fun, but also “really hard.”

As Zeren drove the ROV, Crittenden quizzed the group on their knowledge of salmon species. Attendee Ally Jones, a third-grader, nailed the challenge on her first try.

Research and Evaluation Manager Tessa Minicucci was teaching fish anatomy at her table. Several girls sat side-by-side at the table across from Minicucci, coloring drawings of salmon with labeled anatomy.

As the girls worked, Minicucci held a still-twitching chinook smolt and led them through naming its parts. She then began, to the laughter and gasps of the girls, to slit its belly from vent to gills, with a small pair of scissors.

“You killed an innocent fish!” exclaimed fourth-grader Sarah Kleeman, before the group began laughing again.

After exposing the smolt’s innards, Minicucci pointed out and named the fish’s organs.

Outside, at the nearest of the concrete pens, Deer Mountain Hatchery Manager Matt Allen demonstrated to attendees how to effectively net the baby salmon. Girls lined up to thrust their nets deep into the pool, and then slid the fish back into the pen after examining them.

In the farther pen, Crittenden pulled the ROV out of the water as her group of girls watched. The many turns the girls had made created a big, loose knot in the long, rubbery tether attached to the machine.

Crittenden pointed out some of the features on the ROV, such as the laser pointers and camera, that help the biologists study the health and behavior of the hatchery’s fish.

Sixth-grader Lexie Leach said her favorite activity of the day was learning about the fish, and sixth-grader Kaitlyn Kleeman said her favorite activity had been the search and rescue operations training.

Quietly supporting the entire event were STEM Student Conservation Association outdoor education specialists Lynda Jones and Nicole Wieszchowski, who were the main organizers, collaborating with Girl Scouts of Alaska. They both live in Anchorage.

Wieszchowski shared their vision for offering the events in Alaska’s towns.

“We really try to bring the Women of Science events to all the different towns in Alaska to get girls exposed to different careers and let them see that women can be in science careers, math careers,” she said.

“I think it’s really cool to let them see that that is a possibility,” Wieszchowski added. “I feel like as a young girl, I wish I was exposed to more jobs — to see what’s out there.”