I have been home now for about a week since my "polar to solar" travels from the North Slope of Alaska, to the tropics of Hawaii. What an incredible journey! Experiences like this can have a profound effect on people, and I am sure this is the case in my situation. The PolarTrec experience took me out of my normal, day to day routine of high school teaching and thrust me into a completely new situation. I met new colleagues, and together we shared the common goal of completing our research task in a wild and challenging landscape. Though I came to Team Squirrel with some relevant background, the scientific content and the research skill set needed for work on this project proved to be intellectually stimulating. The excitement generated from this experience continues today, and will continue into the upcoming school year and beyond. There are a number of specifics resulting from this experience that will guide and impact my future teaching.
For the past month, I have essentially lived, breathed, discussed, and worked on science. Time off from the squirrel project just meant time to explore the tundra, look for wildlife, and better understand the unique landscape. Social interactions were with fellow scientists working on a wide variety of interesting polar research projects. Discussions at meal time often related to the goings on around Toolik Field Station. Essentially, everything around me was about the science. As a science educator, this was great. I learned about all sorts of projects in many disciplines. There were teams looking at everything from hydrology, to atmospheric chemistry; arachnid ecology to song bird phenology. The polar regions are at the front line of global climate change. The cutting edge research that we hear about at home is taking place right here. What will happen to carbon dioxide concentrations when the permafrost melts? Several teams are working on it. What can we learn from extreme hibernators such as the ground squirrel about mammalian physiology? Could their unique ability to conserve energy during hibernation have medical applications for humans? Team Squirrel has been at it for over decade.
The more I leaned about the science taking pace at Toolik, the better I understand the importance of basic research; Doing science for its own sake, rather than direct human application. It is from the basic research that many discoveries relevant to humanity are uncovered. This is an area where my students and the public at large need guidance to better understand the importance of basic research. This is a great topic to incorporate into my future classes.
The PolarTrec experience also provided a valuable opportunity to see how a big scientific project takes pace in this day and age. In our group, there are the Principle Investigators (PI's), and Co-PI's, we had a "research professional", a graduate research assistant, an undergraduate research assistant (REU) and finally, myself. All the work is funded by multiple National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. It was neat to be a small part of the team, and to see how it takes several people at different levels to complete a project. Having been away from the academic university science scene for a very long time, it was good for me to be a part of it once again. Living and working in a rural town that is essentially 3 hours from a major University creates a disconnect, yet this contact is essential if we are to prepare our students for college life or careers in the sciences.
As a member of the team, there was a steep learning curve because everything was essentially new, and I wanted to be as useful as possible. A lot of this usefulness came down to helping with the very physical work of carrying, setting, and recovering squirrel traps. I found this work to be enjoyable and rewarding especially when successful. Processing the squirrels involved careful handling, and attention to insure their well being. All the team members were very tuned into the idea of learning from the squirrels while doing no harm. This required attention and focus. Squirrels left in traps too long during bad weather necessitated frequent checking. In order to draw blood samples in challenging field conditions required all hands on deck. The downloading of data from the light collars required care and attention, It would be a shame to go through all the work and not get the data because of a computer glitch or user error. The implantation of the i-button data loggers was particularly engaging. This involved anesthetizing the animals, then surgically implanting the i-buttons into the abdomen, then sewing them back up. Though I only assisted, this exposed me to some basic veterinary science. While working there was often a sense of urgency and shared purpose. As a team, we all combined skills and effort to get the job done.
The invasive nature of this project brought up some ethical questions on the treatment of animals in research. Is the stress and possible death we put the animals through worth it? It really got me thinking about how we know what we do know in subjects like medicine. So much of what we understand in physiology has come from animal research. What would medicine be without it? These are topics that people have to work out themselves, but it is important to have all the information to make an informed decision. This sort of discussion is an excellent critical thinking exercise in the classroom. I hope to include it with units on dissection and experimental design.
The PolarTrec experience has opened the door to a number of things that I can implement in my classroom and share with other teachers. For starters, involving students directly in data collection and analysis. The use of data loggers and digital probes can generate large data sets that have to be managed with computer software. This is a great way to promote STEM education using lots of math and technology to answer scientific questions. I plan to develop activities with data sets from the squirrel project. Students can then develop their own experiments that involve larger data sets. This fits well with the "Internal Assessments" required in IB biology classes. It is also a great fit with STEM initiatives and the interdisciplinary nature of science.
Another theme I picked up with the PolarTrec experience and something that many of the projects at Toolik track diligently, is the timing of seasonal events or phenology. These seasonal changes are crucial to understanding the impacts of climate change. This is something that can be done locally by students at all grade levels. Long term tracking of these changes will provide the context for students to better understand what they see and observe. I see our school developing an extensive phenology database and public exhibit.
During my entire experience, with all the people I met along the way, I couldn't help but think about how my life would be different had I continued down the path to an advanced degree in biology. The level of dedication of the grad students, the assistants, and especially the PI's was inspiring. Such dedication and focus is certainly a key ingredient to becoming successful in a scientific career. As in anything, a lot of sacrifices have to be made along the way. Things like family, lifestyle, location are all impacted by career choice. I found that I am at peace with my choices. One of the great things about being a science teacher is that we can be generalists: any scientific topic is fair game to learn about and share with students. I find the more I learn about the natural world around me, the more interesting it becomes. Whether travelling or at home, there is always something to examine, observe, or appreciate. There are always connections to make, insights to be gained. This makes life a lot more interesting. So as a science educators, we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to share this passion with students. The pairing of science teachers with working scientists is a win-win for both. I can think of no better form of educator professional development. Thank you PolarTrec and Team Squirrel for the opportunity of a lifetime!