By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Social networking enables Anne Marie Wotkyns to teach from Antarctica.
Anne Marie Wotkyns joined a seven-week science expedition in Antarctica last December to research ways of measuring climate change — but she didn’t leave her students behind. Through her blog, fourth-graders at Monlux Magnet Elementary School in North Hollywood kept up with her adventures, which included encounters with extreme weather, penguins, seals, orcas and more.
“Via social networking, my students were allowed to travel to a place people seldom get to visit — and set their sights on something they can do in the future as scientists,” says Wotkyns, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles. “They were exposed to wonder and amazement through following me on my blog, and it was much more interesting than just hearing about my trip after the fact. I had classrooms from all over the United States following me on my blog journal, which had photos and stories posted every other day.”
Wotkyns was one of a dozen educators selected by PolarTREC (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating) to participate in hands-on field research in the polar regions. PolarTREC is managed by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States and funded by the National Science Foundation for the purpose of bringing K-12 educators and polar researchers together. Wotkyns was the only teacher aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden with an international team of researchers as it traveled the Amundsen Sea on the western part of Antarctica, where ice can be over 2 meters thick. On the continent, the ice can be two miles thick.
“We were studying science related to climate change and the Antarctic habitat,” she says. “Our team was looking at ways to more accurately measure sea ice remotely instead of being on the ice. We studied ways of using photography and EMI [electromagnetic induction] or using sound waves to measure the thickness of the ice by comparing the density of water to the ice.”
Being in such a remote area presented challenges when it came to staying connected with her students, but she managed. Her substitute teacher and others were steered to a website that gave a GPS location of her ship. She sent “status updates” on Facebook to notify followers on teacher listservs that her blog had been updated at polartrec.com/expeditions/oden-antarctic-expedition-2010. She encouraged those receiving updates to notify parents, teachers and others interested in science to follow her. And she conducted live webinars for her students — and those at other school sites — accompanied by conference calls.
“Technology allowed more real-time interaction,” she says. “If students couldn’t be with me, this was definitely the closest they could be. I had a ‘question and answer forum’ so they could post their questions to me and I could get back to them within a day.”
Wotkyns, a science teacher, was named a Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2006. She received the Steve Allen Excellence in Education Award in 2007, and renewed her National Board Certificate in 2008. She was selected to visit Antarctica from a pool of teacher applicants nationwide. It was an experience that she calls life-changing.
“I was within a meter of Adélie penguins and emperor penguins,” she relates. “Without land predators, they weren’t afraid of us. The Adélies were curious, and the emperors were ambivalent. We saw many leopard seals and orcas. It was amazing.”
She brought along the class mascot, a stuffed animal named Pascy the Penguin, and was amazed when it was picked up and carried around by real penguins, who thought it was a baby chick. She shared this encounter on Facebook and YouTube. She also brought flags of various schools for the journey, to be photographed and then returned to their rightful owners. Upon her return, one of the Swedish researchers came to visit her classroom.
“Schools have limited field trips these days, so technology can be a great way to open new doors for students,” says Wotkyns. “I think it’s wonderful when teachers can go out and experience science in the field and bring it back to their students through social networking.”
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