Students and staff at a 2013 ANSEP Middle School Academy (Photo courtesy ANSEP)The Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program is tripling enrollment in its Middle School Academies after receiving a $6 million state grant.Download AudioThe free academies were founded in 2010 and last 10 to 12 days. The program hopes to get middle school students—especially Alaska Natives—interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The curriculum includes experiments and engineering challenges. Students live on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus to get a feel for college.Seventy-seven percent of academy students take Algebra I by the end of eighth grade; the national average in 2011 was 47 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.Last year, there were four Middle School Academies in the spring and summer, each with 54 students between grades six and eight. Next year, they will have 12 sessions held all year round.The grant money will be split over three years. Michael Bourdukofsky is ANSEP’s chief operations officer. He says the grant will go toward housing for students at UAA, travel, academic materials and staff support, among other things.Bourdukofsky was a participant in ANSEP’s university program, but feels that students coming out of the Middle School Academies have an early advantage.“With the exposure that we’re providing students with now to college life, to campus life, to the expectations of students once they get to college, I didn’t have any of that and I kind of went in blind,” Bourdukofsky says.He graduated with an engineering degree from UAA and says ANSEP was critical in keeping him on track.Bourdukofsky says ANSEP accepts about half of academy applicants and there are never enough slots for interested students. Students can only go to the program once, but are encouraged to participate in other ANSEP initiatives afterward.Jules Mermelstein is only 15 but is set to graduate next year from West Valley High School in Fairbanks. He says that ANSEP encouraged him to set his goals higher and graduate early.“I definitely wouldn’t have been doing a three-year track, had it not been for ANSEP’s initial push to get me interested,” he says.Mermelstein originally wanted to be an archaeologist, but became fascinated with mechanical engineering when he attended an academy in sixth grade.“We built a balsa wood bridge and while my group may not have done the best ‘cause there were many, many different groups competing, it was still really interesting and fun to learn how to build stuff, because that’s like nothing that’s really introduced in school other than like, a candy cane house,” Mermelstein says.He hopes to continue along the ANSEP track in college, going to either UAA or University of Alaska Fairbanks. When he graduates, he says he would like to work on in-state renewable energy projects.The grant to expand the Middle School Academies came through House Bill 278 championed by Gov. Sean Parnell.