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Scavenger hunt blends learning and science: Discovery Center hosts student event
Holy Name/FastTrack students compete in a scavenger hunt on Friday at Southeast Alaska Discovery Center. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

A large, eager group of FastTrack students pooled in the entryway of the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center on Friday afternoon to delve into science, technology, engineering and math woven through a scavenger hunt.

Discovery Center Director Leslie Swada greeted the students, their parents and teachers inside the front entrance and announced the beginning of a mystery engineering mission the kids would be part of.

“We are going to allow you to find your way based on a fake new entrance,” she announced.

She led the group outside and around the building, then through a side door to the empty room that previously was a gift shop and book store.

As the students gathered inside, U.S. Forest Service civil engineers Lindy Kemp and Eleanor Oman greeted them.

“How many of you guys know what an engineer is?” Oman asked.

“Builds stuff,” one voice called out from the student group.

Oman nodded.

“Did you know that there's lots of different types of engineers?” Oman then asked.

She then listed other types of engineers: structural engineers, and transportation engineers, whom she said design traffic lights and study traffic patterns.

“So, civil engineers cover a whole range of things,” Oman explained. “We design buildings, we design beams, bridges, roads.”

She said as civil engineers, they even work to design wastewater treatment facilities.

“Wastewater treatment is Lindy's favorite thing to do,” Oman said, to audience laughter, adding, “getting clean water to the drinking fountain.”

She added that civil engineers “design everything you need for a building or a city.”

Oman then asked if the students knew the difference between an architect and an engineer, and explained that an architect designs everything that looks good in a building.

She added, “they also understand how people work in a building. How people move through a building.”

Oman then described a remodeling project planned for the Discovery Center.

“We're going to cut off the corner of the building,” she said.

She gestured to the south-facing corner behind the group to show how that corner would be removed to create a broad entrance at the sidewalk.

“Why do you think the architect wants to cut off the corner of the building?” Swada asked.

“To make a bathroom?” one student piped up.

Another student guessed that it would make it easier for people to come into the building.

Swada said that the idea behind the remodel mostly is that the current entrance faces a parking lot, which “is not very inviting.” She added that another problem has been that people can't easily find the entrance as it is now.

In addition to helping people more easily flow into the Discovery Center, a gift shop will be opened at the new entrance.

“This area will again be a gift store,” Swada said. “We want to basically, help visitors understand the forest, the people and the animals of Southeast Alaska. They can understand that going through the exhibits, seeing our films, but it's always nice to take a memento with you to remind you of where you've been, and most visitors want this.”

Swada then asked the students to imagine what the engineers and architects would have to move and redesign when taking the corner off of that room.

Guesses included: “the drain,” “the windows,” “the floor,” “the walls and the ceiling,” and the “ventilation system.”

Swada also pointed out the electrical outlets and ethernet outlets that would have to be moved.

The students then were asked to start their scavenger hunt from the newly planned entrance area, imagining they were cruise ship passengers just arriving to the center.

“We'll see how you do,” Swada said, adding that Oman would be taking a lot of notes on their progress.

The students streamed up a ramped entry to the main floor to start hunting.

Half of the group had downloaded the new “Agents of Discovery” app to their phones to deploy on the hunt and the second half were tackling the hunt with old-fashioned clipboards and paper guides.

According to information at play.google.com, the Agents of Discovery app is an “augmented reality, geo-triggered app that gets you outside, active, and engaged in the world around you. With Agents of Discovery, you become a top-secret Agent, dedicated to solving the greatest mysteries of science, culture, technology, and nature.”

With the app, students can explore the Discovery Center through finding clues to answer questions about topics such as totem poles, Elizabeth Peratrovich, area tree species and natural resources. The app offers such guides to “missions all over North America.”

The paper guides also prompted the students to answer questions and to find display items and information.

In the darkened rainforest section of the Discovery Center on Friday, Holy Name/FastTrack third-grader Adam Lorig was searching for a squirrel in the naturalistic display, with the recorded sounds of ravens and varied thrushes calling out overhead.

“It's very fun and exciting,” Adam said. “And, you get to go on scavenger hunts — and everything looks real.”

His scavenger hunt partner, Holy Name/FastTrack third-grader Orsen Mike, shared what he enjoys about the Discovery Center.

“Most of the things are real,” Orsen said, adding, “and the art is so elaborate — and I'm almost the best kid artist in the class.”

Holy Name/FastTrack students Lily Padron, a fourth-grader and Grace Miller, a third-grader, had been searching for a different animal.

The hardest to find is “the brown bear,” Lily said, “because the one over there in the forest is a black bear.”

Grace nodded in agreement, and they scampered to the next display area, clutching their clipboards.

In the upper level of displays, Holy Name/FastTrack students, Sophia Cook, a fourth-grader and Mikaylah Abapo, a third-grader,  were working together to complete their scavenger hunt finds.

Sophia said, “the best thing about the Discovery Center is learning about the exhibits and also doing the scavenger hunt with a partner, because it's challenging but it's also awesome.

“Alaska is just a fascinating place,” Sophia continued. “All the wildlife and culture, so when tourists come … the most fascinating thing about Alaska is like, everyone thinks it's an accomplishment to live in Alaska. Like, people from New Jersey, New York — we say we're from Alaska and they're like, 'Whoa, you're from Alaska, that's amazing!'”

As the students finished the scavenger hunt, they regrouped near the front desk at the front entryway.

Swada asked them to raise their right hands, then to repeat the pledge after her: “I promise to protect the earth, the forest, the animals and my community.”

She then handed out patches embroidered with “Southeast Alaska Discovery Center Agent of Discovery” surrounding a red and green sockeye salmon on a watery blue background.

Then it was time for the group to move into the Discovery Center's theater for the movie “Dream Big,” which follows the dreams and projects of engineers all over the globe.

It also was time to reveal the mystery engineering experiment the students had participated in that day.

Swada told the students they were part of Oman and Kemp's study of visitor movement from the new entrance through the center.

“Was there any confusion, starting at a different door?” Swada asked the students.

Several voices called out “no.”

Swada said that they were alerted to one possible area of confusion, where visitors have to make a very sharp, non-intuitive turn to get to the main exhibits.

FastTrack Coordinator Lori Ortiz told the students, “One of the ways that engineers study that, and I don't know if that was really clear, is you just watch how people move — and that's a science — that's engineering. You watch how they move in a new space.”

She also explained that the observations only can work if the visitors don't know their movements are being tracked.

“That's what they were doing with you,” Ortiz continued. “You guys were their experiment for engineering. They were trying to see how tourists would actually move in this building.”

As the students settled back to view the movie, Ortiz thanked the students.

“You helped them with a science experiment today,” she said.