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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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Alaska Science Camps, Fairs & Experiments

ANKN is a resource for compiling and exchanging information related to Alaska Native knowledge systems and ways of knowing. We are pleased to create and distribute a variety of publications that assist Native people, government agencies, educators and the general public in gaining access to the knowledge base that Alaska Natives have acquired through cumulative experience over millennia.


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Examples of "Observe
and Think" Projects


There are times when we cannot control all the forces working in a situation, yet we want to learn what is happening and why.

Scientists want to know why some years there are many salmon returning to Alaska and other years there are few. There are many factors, or variables involved in the life cycle of the salmon. Any number of them could increase or decrease the number of salmon returning.

We wonder if the river is going to flood during breakup. Again there are many factors involved, yet we control none of them.

We wonder why some years there are lots of blueberries and other years there are only a few.

We want to know if, when the loon calls, there will be a strong wind within a day.

How can we study situations like that? We cannot do an experiment. We can only observe and think.

When we do an experiment, we control all the variables. We set up the project and greatly influence its outcome. When we do a project based on observe and think, we try to influence the outcome as little as possible. If we try to observe the nesting habits of ducks and geese by paddling up to the nest every day, we will be observing how they respond to us, not how they nest.


Will our village flood when the river breaks up this spring? The first step in finding out whether it will flood or not is to go to the Elders and ask them what things influence breakup the most. They will probably identify:

  • The amount of snow in the mountains.
  • The thickness of the ice.
  • The rate the snow melts and runs off before breakup.

If there is lots of snow in the mountains and it runs off quickly, and the river ice is thick from a cold winter, the ice will probably jam and the village will flood.

If there isn't much snow or if the snow melts gradually, and if the ice is thin, the river probably will not flood.

However, some years there might be little snow in the mountain, but the rate of runoff is fast. Many combinations are possible.

While we cannot control the amount of snow, we can measure its depth. We can weigh it or melt it to see how much water is in each foot of packed snow.

While we cannot control the thickness of the ice, we can measure it daily.

While we cannot control the rate the snow melts, we can record the number of days the temperature is over 32 degrees, and the number of hours each day the snow is melting.

As a long term project, do this.

  • Measure the thickness of the river ice in several locations. Do this every two weeks for two months before the expected breakup. You might have to auger a hole in a slightly new place each time, as the edge of the previous hole will round off in the current, making measuring difficult.
  • Measure the depth of the snow every day or every other day from March 15 until breakup. Do this in several locations: in the shade, in the sun, in a snowdrift, etc.
  • On a calendar, record the days that the temperature is over 32 degrees and the number of hours each day that the temperature is over 32.

Record that information for several years, and record how high the water and ice come up (or over) the river bank. You should be able to predict in a future year whether the river is likely to flood the village or not.

This is a good science project, but it will take many years before a good conclusion is possible.


We would like to predict whether or not there will be lots of berries in a given location. There are several things that influence this.

  • Is there a late frost that kills the spring buds?
  • Is there enough rain at the right times to nourish the plants during the summer?
  • Is there enough sunshine during the summer?

We do not control the sunshine, the temperature or the rainfall. We can, however, faithfully record them. We can also record the amount of berries in a measured location.

  • Record the weather in the spring. Note any frosts after the blueberry blossoms have started to form.
  • Record the number of sunny days and rainy days on a calendar. Note the stage of development of the berries, bloom, bud, green, turning blue, and blue.
  • Stake out an area in your favorite berry patch. Record how many berries you get from that area.

When you compare the information from one year to the next, you should be able to determine what makes a bumper crop of berries in one year and lean times the next.


Science projects that involve animal behavior often are observe and think type projects. 

Camprobbers (Grey Jays)

We can do an experiment to test which food a camprobber prefers by putting out several types of food on a piece of plywood and protecting it from the squirrels. However, we cannot do an experiment to determine where the camprobber will store the food. For that we need binoculars and lots of patience. Do an "observe and think" project similar to this with birds or animals in your area.


Often we run into a problem we do not understand. We cannot do an experiment because we don't know what is happening.

Campfire Smoke

For years I wondered why smoke followed me around the campfire. I couldn't think of a good experiment because I didn't have a clue. Once I observed and thought about it for several years, I finally had enough information to do a few simple experiments.


My son-in-law observed that his snowmachine would backfire after the weather turned from warm to cold. He couldn't do an experiment. By observing for a long time, he figured it out. The problem was frost forming in his tank when warm weather turned to cold.

With that information, he did an experiment. He kept his tank full during the time the weather was warm. There was no air in the tank to release moisture when the temperature dropped. His snowmachine never backfired again. 


I would like to find out what causes the changes in the mosquito population from one year to the next. To be honest, I don't know all the factors that are involved. In order to find out why there are many or few mosquitoes, I must first find the factors that influence their growth and development. Perhaps the larvae have predators that are more active one year than another. Perhaps the temperature isn't right for them. I know that there must be puddles when the larvae can hatch. Perhaps the swallows and other birds that eat mosquitoes are more plentiful one year or another. Perhaps the female mosquitoes couldn't find enough blood in the previous year to nurture the eggs.

Observe and think

A good experiment will give a clear answer to a question. However, many situations-particularly those with weather and living things-cannot be done by experiment. Observing and thinking over a long period of time is the only way to come to a good conclusion.

Finding and Developing a Science Fair Project

Examples of "Observe and Think" Projects

200+ Ideas for Science Fairs!

Traditional Lighting


Traditional Firemaking


Fishing with Lures

Rabbit Snares

Spearing Fish and the Refraction of Light

Chill of the Campfire

Solution vs Suspension

Seals & Beaver, Floating & Sinking


Selecting a Birch Tree

Spruce & Other Roots

Spruce Gum

Spear Throwing

Berry Pickers

Drum Frames


Book Cover

© 2004 Alaska Native Knowledge Network. All rights reserved.

A partner with the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0086194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Camps as an Environment for Science & Culture

Culturally Relevant Science Fairs



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Last modified April 12, 2011