Kodiak resident Lindsey Gibbs was on a typical outing on Near Island when she and three of her children spotted a bright yellow plastic box fastened to a tree.
Opening it up, they found that the box contained small, clear cups and nets for tide pooling, as well as an informational guide about what animals and organisms could be found in the area.
“The kids were so excited. We love going tide pooling and checking things out,” Gibbs said, but added that they had never had supplies on hand for the activity.
Using the tools borrowed from the box, her kids inspected snails and a dead crab.
“They were excited about having the supplies,” Gibbs said, noting that the boxes also provided an important lesson about taking care of the items and putting them away properly after use.
These educational “spot boxes” are turning typical outdoor walks around Kodiak into adventures in learning for students and parents alike.
The box on Near Island is one of five that have been established in different parts of town as part of a new Kodiak Island Borough School District initiative encouraging students to use their community and the outdoors as a classroom.
Two of the boxes have activities and supplies for tide pooling, two provide guidance for exploring birds and plants, and the last has activities about rocketry.
The tide pool spot boxes can be found at Mill Bay Beach and North End Park on Near Island, while the Kodiak bird and plant boxes can be found along South End Trail on Near Island and Old Woman's Mountain Trail. The newest spot box was set up at the Pacific Space Complex at Pasagshak and has rocketry activities.
The boxes contain items for themed activities, such as nets for tide pooling, instructions on how to make a straw rocket, and laminated sheets for playing bird bingo and embarking on plant scavenger hunts.
The pilot spot box project is led by John Malloy, who is also developing the curriculum for each theme. As a former elementary school teacher and current educational technology specialist, Malloy has experience with project-based learning and enjoys thinking creatively about how to engage students and have them learn in the outdoors.
“A lot of this is content that families can take with them and talk about later on,” Malloy said. “The whole point of the spot boxes is to give some direction — some purpose — to learning and engaging with the environment.”
The spot box program was originally developed to address the needs of students in the federal Migrant Education Program, which is aimed at instructing students up to 20 years of age who have not graduated from high school and who travel with a parent or guardian for commercial fishing, subsistence fishing, fish processing, logging or farming.
But with the closure of schools earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting introduction of distance learning to the entire school district, the program was opened to the general public.
“The whole concept was developed to meet the needs of migrant families, and we realized that it was going to benefit everybody,” said Damon Hargraves, the school district’s federal programs director. “It’s advertised heavily to our migrant population and we survey and assess the success of the program based on how it’s affecting the migrant population.”
About 20% of the district’s students are in the Migrant Education Program, Hargraves said, adding that Kodiak has one of the largest such programs in Alaska.
He said that his dream over the years has been to develop systems that will allow the outdoor Kodiak community to become a classroom.
“When it really came to a head this spring with the pandemic, it was an opportunity for us to bring some of these projects that we have been thinking about for a while,” Hargraves said.
Funding for the spot box project primarily comes from a grant that funds the Migrant Education Program. Hargraves said the boxes are inexpensive to create and install. However, he said they are thinking of incorporating more expensive items such as an underwater camera that will attach to a school iPad or a smartphone.
Hargraves also said he hopes the project will continue throughout the school year and for future summers, and urges anyone who is eligible to sign up for Kodiak’s Migrant Education Program.
“My goal isn't just to develop individual spot boxes for this. My ultimate goal is to develop a platform for our community,” Hargraves said, noting that if a teacher or individual is passionate about a certain topic, the district would be able to make a spot box on it.
The district has hired a coordinator for the Migrant Education Program who will continue the project during the school year and continue to develop spot boxes.
Malloy said he sees the program expanding to more boxes covering a diverse range of topics, from boats and aviation to fishing, with activities in each of the boxes changing each summer.
Malloy and Hargraves both said the spot boxes are popular among the community, with residents and teachers helping the district develop the content.
Malloy said videos of the boxes he shared on social media have garnered attention from people living off-island in the Lower 48, with his posts attracting over 1,000 views.
“It's been fun, and I'm happy that it has taken off the way that it has,” he said. “The community has been positive with the feedback and they’ve been really respectful of the boxes.”