Haines science teacher Pam Randles is the 2015 recipient of the Emma Walton Distinguished Service Award. Each year, the Alaska Science Teachers Association presents the lifetime achievement award to a teacher who has made ‘extraordinary contributions to science education.’
Randles has worked around Alaska and the world. She’s spent the past seven years as education director at Takshanuk Watershed Council. She retired from that job this month. Last Saturday, she took what could be her final ride with the Takshanuk Young Eagle Scientists.
“This is a spotting scope and it allows us to scan, our goal here is to do 360 degrees and count all the eagles,” Randles explained as she looked for eagles along the Chilkoot River. “If we do it the same way every single time then we can compare the data and see if there are changes.”
Haines is known for its large number of eagles. The only group that has gathered comprehensive data on the eagle population in recent years is Takshanuk’s Young Eagle Scientists. They are led by Randles.
“I don’t want to just go and look at books about eagles, I want to actually go out and look at eagles, and so does everybody else, it’s not just me. You learn things a lot better if it’s authentic like that.”
Getting out in the field and experiencing science first-hand has been Randles’ main goal in her more than 30 years as a teacher.
“The actual experience, authentic, hands on experience — the learning is much greater. And it’s much easier for the teacher, because the kids are into it, they’re motivated, they’re interested.”
After Randles completed her degree in biology, she wanted to do field research. So she tried to apply for jobs with federal and state wildlife services. She says, she was laughed out of the building.
“So it was just kind of one of those things, you’re a woman, and that’s not an opportunity.”
Later on, Randles went back to school for education, and then, the opportunities came along. Her first teaching job was in Anvik, a tiny village in Western Alaska. Right away, she let her passion for field work drive her teaching.
“The best part in the whole world with kids is you give them some science thing to do and they get all excited and have fun. That’s the best part of being a teacher. Their eyes start to sparkle and they start thinking ‘what if?'”
That research project-driven teaching style is why she started the Young Eagle Scientists program with Takshanuk. Throughout the fall and winter, a group of students count eagles at designated locations.
“We have Chilkoot, Mud Bay, 10 Mile, 10 to 18 Mile…” Eighth grader Dominic Stossel listed the locations. Stossel was the only young eagle scientist along for the ride Saturday. The other two who were enrolled this semester had other commitments. Stossel is also Randles’ grandson.
“You’re supposed to be as nerdy as me grandma, what happened?” Stossel joked as the two talked about Star Wars during their drive to Chilkoot. “I’m just a different kind of nerdy!” Randles replied.
Stossel and the other eagle scientists presented their research at the GLOBE science conference in Los Angeles this year. With accomplishments like that, you might think the Emma Walton award was no surprise to Randles.
“I was flabbergasted,” Randles said. “Because I think of teachers who get the awards are 20 year veterans in one school, and my career has been fairly checkered. I’ve worked with watershed council, I worked with the Peacecorps, I worked overseas, I haven’t been one of those people who stayed in one place for 20 years so I thought that’s not gonna happen.”
It was a nice milestone to cap Randles’ final year as a science educator, although it’s not clear if she’s actually getting out of the business for good. How does she feel about retirement?
“I’m getting old and tired, but there’s still a million things out there I could do, so don’t ask!”
She could continue to lead the young eagle scientists next year, depending on whether it ends up being a high school or middle school class.
Stossel says he hopes his grandma continues to lead the young eagle scientists. “You’re kind of one of the funnest people to do this with, you know?” he tells her.
“Well thank you,” she replies.
And with that, they head out in another direction to continue their research and count more eagles.
Takshanuk is hosting a retirement party for Randles this Friday, 5 p.m. at the Jones Point office.