‘Real World’ Science Accented in Class

By David J. Hoff — May 23, 2001 10 min read
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Raelene Showery and Ericka Tarrant may know more about the polar desert of Antarctica than the U.S. desert they live in.

The juniors at El Paso’s Montwood High School have watched two of their teachers go to the southernmost continent in consecutive years. While the teachers worked on scientific research there, the teenagers completed a significant project of their own here in the farthest western reach of Texas.

For both teachers and students, the adventure became a lesson in how to work as professional scientists might, analyzing data that might not otherwise make sense, earning the respect of others because of their participation in a project that required teamwork, and drawing conclusions that explain how delicate life systems function in the world’s most extreme climate.

“It confirms our approach—to get involved in the real world,” said Mimi Wallace, the first of the two Montwood teachers to go to Antarctica. “Those are the things you’re going to remember. Those are the things that will change your life.”

Montwood High juniors Ericka Tarrant, left, and Raelene Showery explain a sea-ice project they completed using data received from researchers while their science teacher was in Antarctica.
—Allison Shelley

Ms. Showery and Ms. Tarrant learned that lesson while Ms. Wallace was in Antarctica’s Palmer Peninsula in December 1999. The two girls analyzed several years of data about the amount of sea ice that forms around the peninsula. After noticing a warming trend, they compared their results with classmates’ findings on penguin reproduction, water temperature and algae levels, and the population of krill—the shrimp-like crustacean that is the staple of penguin, seal, and whale diets. As they looked at the puzzle in front of them, they discovered that rising water temperatures decreased algae production, curtailing a key food source for krill, and, in turn, aquatic life.

The lesson they learned went beyond the scientific facts and into the critical thinking needed for scientific inquiry—a goal of any educator trying to teach students using scientific inquiry, as well as of the federal program that sent the teenagers’ teachers to Antarctica.

“We learned that you can’t just go along and get your information,” Ms. Tarrant said. The 17-year-old is a student of Ms. Wallace, a science teacher, and William Swanson, a math and technology teacher. Both traveled for monthlong stays on Palmer Peninsula in the past two years. “You have to organize it so you can understand it. And you can’t draw conclusions off bits of information. You have to do years and years and years of research.”

The project is one of many that have grown out of the experiences of the 80 teachers the National Science Foundation has sent to Antarctica since 1992 to be members of scientific-research teams for one- to two-month stretches.

Teachers say they return from their journeys with lab experiments, lesson plans, and assignments that help the unique place and the science that is conducted there come to life. Just about all find concrete ways to apply something from their encounters in their daily classroom work, whether it’s asides about Antarctic research while teaching about global warming or assigning in-depth projects that help students understand the life cycle there.

But the best experience is watching students such as Ms. Tarrant and Ms. Showery solve a scientific riddle on their own, according to Ms. Wallace, who tracked her students’ progress on the project by e-mail while she was in residence at Palmer Station in December 1999.

“They can see how it all plays together, that the [data] are not independent of each other,” the teacher said. “You can see the lights go on and hear them say, ‘Oh.’”

Teachable Continent

The National Science Foundation has been pairing teachers with scientists to conduct research in Antarctica since 1992 under the independent federal agency’s Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic, or TEA, program.

Antarctica draws the interest of teachers and students because the continent is a place unlike any other—a landscape of ice that is actually a desert, a climate with weather so extreme that no animals can exist on its land without feeding on the sea.

“Antarctica is just fascinating to students,” said Rolf Tremblay, a science teacher at Goodman Middle School in Gig Harbor, Wash., who worked last December on a project drilling cores of ice that will yield clues about Earth’s climate history.

“They just get turned on by the topic because it’s so different from their own experience,” he said.

Montwood High students conduct experiments with homemade ice cores similar to ones collected by science teams in Antarctica.
—Allison Shelley

Mr. Tremblay said he finds ways to integrate Antarctic research into his lessons on climate change and ozone depletion. Recently, for example, he assigned his students the task of making a topographical map of Antarctica, which is the planet’s most mountainous continent.

Another recent participant in the NSF program, science teacher Kolene Krysl of Central Middle School in Omaha, Neb., said she’s pointed to how ice changes into water in her chemistry lessons on how matter changes. She recounted the experience of living on the frozen McMurdo Sound while conducting her research and moving off the ice once the December temperatures started turning it into slush as the Southern Hemisphere reached the height of its summer.

And the lessons weren’t limited to science. Before Ms. Krysl left, the math teacher in her team at Central Middle School had students calculate the distance she would travel on her journey, and the English teacher assigned reading about the continent’s early 20th-century explorers.

Such steps are typical responses from teachers just after they return from Antarctica, according to the project manager for the NSF program. But many need a lot of time for reflection and planning before they can create a sustained series of lesson plans that draw on their experiences.

At first, “they’re still adjusting to being back, moving through the experience mentally,” said Stephanie S. Shipp, a contractor who runs the program for NSF and a research associate at the department of earth sciences at Rice University in Houston. “It’s not until that second year where they say, ‘Let’s start talking about the process of science.’ ”

Mr. Swanson, four months after returning to his classroom on the eastern edge of this city on the Mexican border, said he wasn’t ready to assimilate his experience into learning opportunities for students. He still had photos to catalog, ideas to pursue, and research to follow up on.

“It takes a while to settle down again and figure what and how some of it or all of it is going to impact your classroom,” he said.

Antarctic Synergy

Students in the Synergy program at Montwood High School have had a unique view of the Antarctic program: Ms. Wallace and Mr. Swanson are two members of a four-teacher team that has taught the same group of 100 students in five subjects—English, mathematics, science, history, and technology—since their freshman year. Teachers will see the students through to graduation next spring.

Ms. Wallace went to Palmer Station in December 1999 when the students were sophomores; Mr. Swanson was selected to go to the same station for a similar stay a year later.

While Ms. Wallace was gone, the Synergy students embarked on a monthlong project for which they downloaded Antarctic research data from the Internet and tried to draw conclusions from it.

William Swanson lines his classroom walls with notes from elementary students he regaled with tales of his trip.
—Allison Shelley

The task was difficult, Ms. Showery and Ms. Tarrant said recently as they reviewed their findings with a visitor. At first, the students didn’t understand the meaning behind the numbers their group was assigned to collect and analyze. Once they started to make sense of it, they and their classmates posted their data on the wall.

Their teachers in the Synergy program—including Mr. Swanson and Ms. Wallace’s substitute—then told them to compare their data with others’ and reach global conclusions.

“The hard thing about it was we were all looking at the smaller picture,” said Ms. Showery, 17. “The hardest part was to step out and look at the big picture.”

As hard as the work was for the students, they said it was a good learning experience. They learned how to handle and interpret data, how to compare their findings with others’, and how to draw conclusions from various sources, according to their teachers.

As the teachers described their students’ projects to scientists, the professionals acknowledged that they don’t go through that kind of process enough themselves.

“It was almost like they said: ‘We should be doing that,’” Ms. Wallace said.

“Letting the kids use raw data is terrific,” said Ms. Shipp, who conducts glacier research as part of separate NSF grants. “That’s very impressive.”

Being a Professional

Just as students at Montwood High School caught a glimpse of scientific research, so do the teachers who immerse themselves in it for up to eight weeks.

“The biggest value of [the TEA program] is being able to do professional science,” Mr. Tremblay said.

In the program, teachers are assigned to work with scientific teams and are expected to do whatever the rest of the group does: Mr. Tremblay placed temperature probes in the ice cores his team drilled near the Siple Dome; Ms. Krysl helped tackle seals and attach tracking devices to their backs so researchers could follow their movements; Kevin A. Lavigne, a chemistry teacher from Hanover High School in New Hampshire, spent up to 14 hours a day in the lab analyzing samples his team collected in the desert region known as the Dry Valleys.

For many of the teachers, who usually work alone, being part of a team was a new experience. It was especially rewarding, some say, because they were given more respect as scientists than they were used to in their regular jobs.

Richard M. Jones, a physics teacher at Billings Senior High School in Montana, said he was given expanded responsibilities at the South Pole because a member of his research team dropped out of the trip at the last minute.

“Teaching is unlike other ‘professions.’ We are treated as underlings by the administration and often seen as overpaid babysitters by many in the general populace,” Mr. Jones wrote in an e-mail reflecting on his experience. “At [the South] Pole the teachers were valued members of an important research project.”

It was especially hard to return to teaching, Mr. Jones added, because when he came back, he saw several colleagues in the math and science departments preparing to leave teaching for more lucrative fields.

While some teachers notice the contrast between their stints as field researchers and their lives back at school, others feel a new regard from their peers and students, according to Ms. Shipp, the TEA project manager.

“The teachers say their students, as well as their colleagues, treat them with respect,” she said. “They become an expert in students’ eyes.”

Staying Home

Teachers also face the pressure to stay home. The biggest hurdle in recruiting applicants to go to Antarctica and the Arctic, Ms. Shipp said, is getting schools to commit to hiring a substitute while the teacher is gone.

At Montwood High School, Mr. Swanson videotaped a month of math lessons because the school district couldn’t find a substitute. Ms. Wallace kept an eye on the classes from her adjoining room.

Even the students wished he had stayed home.

Because students and teachers develop a long-term bond in Montwood’s Synergy program, several didn’t want their teachers to leave for such a long time. Mr. Swanson, who maintains the program’s computers, was especially missed.

“It was cool because they brought back a lot of things, but it was hard,” said Ms. Showery, one of the El Paso juniors. “It was hard because Mr. Swanson does a lot for us.”

“It was like missing a very close friend,” added Noel Del Real, 17, also a junior. “When [Mr. Swanson and Ms. Wallace] weren’t here, it was weird. It wasn’t the same with substitutes.”

But Mr. Swanson pointed out that in his absence, the students had learning opportunities beyond what was happening in Antarctica.

Students learned how to help each other if they couldn’t understand his videotaped lectures, he said, and they became more technologically savvy because he wasn’t around to solve their problems.

“They got to experience—so to speak—another way of learning math,” he said. “They had my videotaped lessons, but they had to rely on each other.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as ‘Real World’ Science Accented in Class


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