Art & Science

I live in suburban St. Louis, MO, about as midwestern United States as you can get. The local news just said we are in a heat advisory for the next few days. Such heat and humidity made me think about the polar regions and of Polar Educators International.

The mission of Polar Educators International (PEI) states that it aims to highlight and share global relevance of the polar regions by leading dialogue and collaboration between educators and researchers. I am a science teacher so the researcher part is rather concrete, someone who asks questions and then gathers evidence to answer them, thus building a vast body of knowledge. Surprisingly, it is the “educator” term that gives me pause because, although I have been a high school teacher for 30+ years, I don’t think my professional role is the only meaning of the term.

To be an “educator” do you need to be a college-credentialed, formal K-12 teacher? I mean that is what I am, but I always feel like an educator is more a facilitator. The goal is to catalyze a student’s own desire to learn. Thus, to limit the definition to just K-12 classroom teachers would limit the sharing and inspiration. One thing this past pandemic year has taught us all is that learning occurs outside the box. At-home learning in particular has taught us that it truly takes a village to educate. Grandparents supervising their grandkid during and after school, pods of neighbors coalescing into learning hotspots, visits to outdoor locations like zoos to supplement shorter school days. All of these have been educational and facilitated by non-traditional educators.

Also included in my idea of “educator” are the people who have lived in the Arctic or Antarctica and whose very life depends on being a student of the environment? How have the cultures they have created allowed them to survive and thrive? Does not their dialogue with the rest of the world about changing conditions on earth, faster at the poles, thrust them into an educator role?

Students are educators too. Like all teachers, I learn from my students. Thanks to the Polar ICE science symposium back in March of 2017, students from 6th-9th grade had the opportunity to use professionally collected data from the poles to ask questions and then try to answer them. Then students presented their work to professional scientists, teachers and other student groups.

Science isn’t the only discipline to advance knowledge of the importance of the poles, art can tell a story as well. The American Geophysical Union’s Fall 2016 meeting provided an opportunity for students to present their work. ARCUS (Arctic Research Consortium of the United States) hosted a reception where students educated polar researchers on what they learned. A great lesson on combining art with science is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s E.A.R.T.H. site. To find out more about having K-12 presenters at international science conferences, check out K-12 Youth Science Sessions on Instagram or Facebook (you will have to ask for permission to join).

Educational opportunities are all around when visiting a zoo or an aquarium. For those of us who do not live or spend time at the poles, this is where the questions start. For a great activity that uses a free app on your phone, try the A Whale of a Roller Coaster developed at the 2017 E.A.R.T.H. workshop.  Also, the open-ended data stories found on the Polar Literacy Project are a great way to start discussing polar regions. And if you need a primer on why the poles are important go to the Polar Literacy Principles.

There is always room for games that educate students of many ages such as the Are Adelie Penguins Getting the Cold Shoulder.

To take the educator role to a new level, check out PolarTREC for blogs from educators working onsite with polar researchers as well as lessons to try (pictured below is a 2018 Bering Sea expedition with middle school teacher Joanna Chierici). You can even pique the interest of your students, family or friends by baking some Antarctic cookies.

Hence, “educators” should not be a narrowly defined term but should encompass all who are curious about the world and willing to share their enthusiasm. We are ALL educators. So, look in the mirror (or use the selfie mode on your phone), YOU are a polar educator and joining this group will allow all of us to grow in knowledge and compassion and THAT type of network is going to make this world a much better place.

Katie Lodes is entering her 32nd year as a classroom science teacher.  Currently, she teaches at St. Joseph’s Academy: an all-girls, Catholic high school in the midwestern US. (St. Louis, Missouri) and is looking forward to bringing the poles into her classroom this fall.