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New curriculum connects aurora, Iñupiat culture

Shungnak students prepare to watch “Kiuguyat: The Northern Lights”
in the UAF Geophysical Institute’s portable planetarium dome.
Photo by Joan Reynolds
Sue Mitchell

A new curriculum that weaves aurora science with Iñupiat culture and language is now available for elementary and middle school teachers across Alaska.

The curriculum includes a 25-minute video, “Kiuguyat: The Northern Lights,” which combines scientific and indigenous perspectives. The film was also produced in a format for high-definition viewing in a planetarium, and its Alaska public debuts was Friday, Jan. 27, at the University of Alaska Anchorage Planetarium in Anchorage. The film will now be in the Planetarium's regular rotation.

The Learning Through Cultural Connections curriculum is the culmination of a three-year, $1.4 million grant project funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The materials were developed for elementary and middle schools in Iñupiaq-speaking areas of northern and western Alaska, but they are available online for teachers anywhere. Staff in the outreach office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute created the curriculum.

“What better hook to draw people into science and into Iñupiat culture than the aurora?” GI Communications Director Lynda McGilvary said.

“We’ve created something that a teacher unfamiliar with Alaska Native culture can use in mainstream, core instruction in the classroom,” McGilvary said. “We’ve given them a pathway to a discussion about the local culture. The teacher can incorporate traditional forms of communication — storytelling, dancing and songs that the students have heard since they were too young to speak. This all now has relevance to what they’re doing in school” in their science classes.

Scientists contributing to the film included University of Alaska Anchorage astronomy Professor Travis Rector, UAF Research Professor Robert Herrick, GI postdoctoral researcher Nate Murphy and GI Director Bob McCoy. The curriculum is aligned with Next Generation Science Standards, Alaska Science Standards, Alaska Cultural Standards, the Iñupiat Learning Framework, Iñupiaq Cultural Values and Alaska English/Language Arts Standards.

Curriculum kits include materials such as teacher and student guides, vocabulary cards with relevant science terminology in English and Iñupiaq, and scale models of the solar system. In early January, the kits were distributed to 23 schools in 20 communities, including every elementary and middle school in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic borough school districts, as well as Nome public schools.

As part of the grant, staff from the GI will take a portable planetarium to the communities between now and April to share “Kiuguyat: The Northern Lights” with students and community members. They’ll project the presentation on the ceiling of the dome-shaped planetarium.

Partners supporting this project included the Native Village of Barrow; the North Slope Borough’s Iñupiat History, Language and Culture Commission and Iñupiat Heritage Center; UAF’s Alaska Native Language Center; the City of Nome’s Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum; and the UA Museum of the North.

FILM PREMIERE: 6:30 and 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 27, UAA Planetarium and Visualization Center, ConocoPhillips Integrated Sciences Building, 3101 Science Circle, Anchorage


Learning Through Cultural Connections curriculum:

“Kiuguyat: The Northern Lights” video:

UAA Planetarium:

Photo below: Worksheets completed by Kotzebue elementary students include labels with both the English word and the Iñupiaq word. Photo by Lori Schoening.