Hope for education
PolarTREC teacher takes Antarctic experience to the classroom
Posted May 13, 2011
Lesley Urasky went to Antarctica to teach her students at Rawlins High School in Wyoming something about polar science and the history of the continent’s vast ice sheets.
But perhaps the biggest lesson she imparted from her month-long adventure with a team of scientists in the central Transantarctic Mountains (CTAM) is never give up on a goal. She realized her own high school dream of one day traveling to Antarctica this past austral summer, an experience she hopes to bring back to the classroom.
“I would definitely say this was a life-changing experience,” she said while sitting in the relative comfort of the galley tent at the CTAM field camp, a sprawling affair of tents, people, helicopters and airplanes.
Urasky and her field team, led by John Stone from the University of Washington , have spent little time here. Stone’s research into the history of the Antarctic ice sheet over the last 20,000 years had kept the team helo-hopping to several peaks along the Beardmore Glacier, camping nonstop for about four weeks. [See main story: Unzipping climate change: Scientists study how Antarctic ice sheet pulled back from Ross Sea region since Last Glacial Maximum.]
Urasky’s opportunity to visit Antarctica came courtesy of the PolarTREC (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating) program and the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs , which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program .
Photo Credit: Gordon Bromley
Urasky on her first-ever helicopter ride, en route to The Cloudmaker in the Transantarctic Mountains.
PolarTREC matches K-12 teachers with polar scientists working in both the Arctic and Antarctic. Those selected spend up to six weeks participating in hands-on field research, with the goal of helping teachers understand polar science, leading to a stronger scientific curriculum in the classroom.
Teachers like Urasky keep journals during their expeditions and participate in real-time events, even using satellite phones to speak with students from around the world. Educators also must produce at least two lesson plans from their experiences and commit to a year of education and outreach as part of the PolarTREC program. [See Urasky's PolarTREC page, Glacial History in Antarctica .]
“There are many teachers who, three or four years [later], are still doing outreach,” Urasky said.
While some of the science can lean toward the esoteric, Urasky said the expedition really engaged the students.
“I’ve been very surprised. I’ve had some really good questions from some of these kids on subjects that are a little bit more foreign to them,” she said.
One of the broad goals of Stone’s research — Howard Conway from the University of Washington and Brenda Hall at the University of Maine — is to understand past ice sheet behavior to predict how Antarctica might respond in the future to climate change.
“The kids in my area are already accepting that climate change is happening, because in Wyoming and Colorado — basically, the whole Rocky Mountains — we’ve had the pine beetle epidemic, so they’re seeing the forest change before their eyes,” Urasky said.
Part of the intention of the PolarTREC program is to re-invigorate students’ interest in science and math, subject areas where the United States has lagged in recent years. In her 13 years of teaching, Urasky said she has noticed that students are too easily discouraged by difficult subjects or minor setbacks.
“The students don’t seem to have the drive to challenge themselves, which worries me,” she said.
“I’ve never been somebody to step away from a challenge … and it seems like everything in Antarctica, whether it’s because of its remoteness, its extreme weather, its extreme topography, there’s always been something out there that’s been kind of a challenge,” she added. “I always prefer to have those challenges out there in front of me, something to work toward.”
In fact, the experience has pushed the Wyoming native to start on a national teacher certification starting in August. She also wants to apply next year for an Einstein Fellowship, a federally funded program that gives math and science teachers a chance to spend a year working at federal agencies or crafting legislation as Capitol Hill staffers.
“I really think we need to have a stronger national curriculum on the sciences and math,” Urasky said. “If there was more consistency across the United States, I don’t think you’d have kids missing out on important parts of their education.”CTAM 2010-11 main page.