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Schooled in science
PolarTREC teams educators, researchers for unique outreach opportunities
Posted December 6, 2007
Mindy Bell skipped class for six weeks to drill holes.
But the science teacher at the Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy in Arizona wasn’t playing hooky. And she wasn’t drilling holes just anywhere.
Bell joined an Antarctic science team at McMurdo Station as part of an International Polar Year (IPY) program that pairs educators and scientists – Polar Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating, or PolarTREC, for short.
In Bell’s case, she joined researcher Stacy Kim, who studies benthic organisms – critters that live on the seafloor. Kim’s team is testing a remotely operated vehicle that cruises in the water under the sea ice, venturing where divers can’t to observe the marine life in McMurdo Sound.
A keen scholar of marine science, Bell worked side by side with the team in the early summer weather near McMurdo Station, experiencing the climatic extremes in which researchers work to broaden our understanding of the natural world.
“It’s really good to see what scientists go through to get their work done,” says Bell, in mid-November, a couple of days before she leaves the Ice and returns to her school.
“It’s not just the excitement of the science; there is a lot of drudgery involved. I wanted to be a part of that – and I was – and I got sick of drilling,” she adds, laughing. “What was really exciting for me is that being in with the science team you get the good, the bad – you work through the problems.”
2007-08 PolarTREC Expeditions in Antarctica
Embedding teachers with science groups is not new. But the folks at the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS) in Fairbanks, Alaska – which runs the three-year program with funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) – have used technology to connect educators with the public in powerful new ways.
“[PolarTREC] has a major impact on their teaching career. And, in many cases, on their personal life and how they view science and teach science in the classroom,” says Janet Warburton, a PolarTREC project manager at ARCUS. “It’s professional development for them, and they’re transferring this experience into the classroom.”
PolarTREC is sort of a third-generation immersion program. Teachers Exploring the Arctic and Antarctic (TEA) was one of the first polar outreach programs to match teachers and researchers. That grant lasted seven years, and TREC followed in 2004.
Then IPY came along, with education and outreach being a major component of the two-year endeavor that supports major research projects in the Arctic and Antarctic.
ARCUS supplies deploying teachers with laptops, voice recorders and digital cameras to document their work. The PolarTREC Web site serves as an interactive platform where teachers can post journal entries, upload photographs and answer questions from students about their experiences.
ARCUS also hosts what it calls “Live from IPY” events, real-time Web casts that assemble teachers, scientists, students and the public into a virtual classroom.
Participants log in online and can also phone in to a conference call. A slide show accompanies a short presentation by the teacher. Several of the researchers on the science team also join the discussion. Plenty of questions always follow.
Sarah Anderson is a few weeks ahead of her counterpart. A teacher at Boerne High School in Texas, Anderson has been home for a couple of weeks following a two-month science cruise aboard the Research Vessel Icebreaker (RSVI) Nathaniel B. Palmer. She joined principal investigator Stephen Ackley and more than 20 other scientists on an ecosystem study of sea ice.
Now, back in the classroom, her role is to connect the students with her own experiences – and perhaps inspire a few of them to don a heavy red parka in the name of polar science.
“Hopefully I can make them understand that scientists don’t necessarily wear white coats and hang out in labs and are nerds,” she says. “You can do science in a lot of cool places.”
Anderson notes that the U.S. Antarctic Program offers many opportunities to work in science without necessarily needing a Ph.D. in physical oceanography. “I can see a lot of my kids doing IT onboard,” she says. “There’s a whole range of things. They may be interested in science, but not necessarily being scientists.”
Photo Credit: Nicholas Huerta
Teacher Mindy Bell, left, retuns to McMurdo Station aboard a helicopter.
The PolarTREC program is highly competitive, with nearly 250 applications already under review for next year. Hopefuls fill out online applications, answering essay questions. A panel reviews the applications and makes recommendations. The top candidates then interview with ARCUS personnel and the scientists with whom they may join.
“We send [the scientists] the best possible matches based on interests and things like that,” Warburton says.
The NSF funds ARCUS to support 12 teachers each year over the life of the grant. But thanks to a network of partners and the willingness of scientists to assume some of the financial burden within their projects, the program will actually support 18 educators this year, including seven in the Antarctic. Costs include not only the technical support, but funding for a substitute teacher during the PolarTREC participant’s absence, and travel costs for a four-day orientation in Fairbanks.
“We try to get as many teachers out there as possible,” Warburton says. “I think it’s growing within the research community, as far as wanting to host teachers on expeditions.”
For Kim, the benthic ecologist at McMurdo Station, the program offers her a chance to get different perspectives of her research. “It’s great to be connected to so many questions and hear what the questions are about our research,” she says during a “Live from IPY” Web cast in November.
“It teaches me how to interact with students, which is fantastic, because I don’t always get that opportunity,” she adds. “And it teaches me how to communicate the science … with a lot of different people.”
Warburton notes that some educators in the TEA and TREC programs even co-authored scientific journal papers with their teams.
“I’ll want to be involved with that data analysis and publishing would be awesome,” Anderson says. “I’m not sure if that’s going to happen; we haven’t talked about that yet.”
But Anderson is confident that the relationships she developed will continue, particularly since several of her research partners work at the University of Texas-San Antonio, about 15 minutes away from her high school. “I think it’s going to be very easy to keep working on the project with them,” she says.
The most amazing thing Bell learned aside from the scientific knowledge she gained? The massive logistics involved in supporting the science, she says, and the work ethic.
“I haven’t met anyone down here with a bad attitude. I’ve only met people who have been helpful and really supportive,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a better group of people anywhere.
“They really try to use the people’s money wisely,” she adds. “I was really impressed by that. Nobody is down here for a vacation.”
That’s a lesson Bell has learned very well.