Students pose in front of Buckland’s 10.53-kW solar system used to power the village’s new water plant. Photo from Alison Jech, Buckland School.

Office of Indian Energy Director Chris Deschene with students and teachers from Buckland and Palmer schools at the Alaska Rural Energy Conference. Photo from Alison Jech, Buckland School.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory Alaska Project Lead Jared Temanson with students and teachers from Buckland and Palmer schools at the Alaska Rural Energy Conference. Photo from Alison Jech, Buckland School.

Last month, with support from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy, I had the privilege of taking my students from the Buckland School to the Alaska Rural Energy Conference in Fairbanks. Students presented to conference attendees and watched presentations from national, regional, state, and local energy experts that tied into the clean energy issues they are studying as part of the Alaska Humanities Forum Sister School Exchange program.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Alaska Native Education Program, the Sister School Exchange is a unique, experiential program that promotes understanding among Alaska’s urban and rural communities through cross-cultural exchanges in middle and high schools. Under the program, five students and one teacher from rural Alaska get to spend a week exploring a sister school in urban Alaska. The Sister School teams work through a 6–8 week standards-aligned curriculum on cross-cultural understanding. The teams then complete a two-way exchange, during which each team gets a chance to host their Sister School community.

Buckland is located on the banks of the Buckland River, approximately 75 miles south of Kotzebue and 40 miles below the Arctic Circle, and has a population of about 450. Our Sister School Exchange was with Palmer High School, located in the city of Palmer, 42 miles northeast of Anchorage with a population of nearly 6,000.

As part of the Sister School Exchange, each student team picks one area to study in-depth, and both the Buckland and Palmer teams chose clean energy. During their visit to Buckland, Palmer students learned about the subsistence lifestyle of our almost 96% Inupiaq Eskimo population and explored the city’s two wind turbines and solar panels. In Palmer, the Buckland students explored several energy systems in the area and also had a chance to meet with Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan and Governor Bill Walker to discuss rural Alaska’s energy needs.

Based on what they learned, some of the clean energy projects our students want to explore include retrofitting our school and community homes with LED lights and installing a 1-kilowatt (kW) solar panel system for our school. The Sister School Exchange encourages teams to culminate their efforts into a community engagement project rooted in their research; the Buckland team created a video documentary to chronicle what we have learned about clean energy and to use for background when we apply for grants to fund projects for our school and community.

We want to bring back an environmentally conscious form of energy to our community to help reduce the high cost of living in the Northwest Arctic and show people in our region that we want to protect our land by choosing energy sources that promote preservation of the land we use to survive. While at the Rural Energy Conference, we met with some agencies who want to help us accomplish this. 

We are grateful to the Office of Indian Energy for helping us take our experience from the Sister School Exchange and morphing it into a community action plan that will benefit both rural and urban Alaska through the hands of our students. I am so proud to be working with everyone in empowering our youth to make great changes for Alaskan communities.

—Written by Alison Jech, Buckland School Teacher