High seas excitement -on the prairie

Internet links schools with sailors around the globe

Heather Halstead and some of her friends were soaking up the warmth of a log fire one cold gray day at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. As the seniors started to reminisce, they turned to their dreams, such as climbing Mt. Everest, kayaking the rivers of Vietnam, or skiing the back country of British Columbia. Later that day, Ms. Halstead had an epiphany: her dream was to sail around the world. But it wouldn't be just any cruise. She would buy a boat and use it to help teach kids about other places - the geography, the cultures, the history.

"I wanted to travel around the world and I wanted to do it while I was young and not when I was retired," she says.

This fall, in the second year of her circumnavigation, Halstead and crew are back on the high seas on her 43-foot ketch, Makulu II. The itinerary includes Africa, the Canary Islands, Brazil and the Caribbean. Eleven schools around the United States are partners, keeping in touch with Makulu II via the Internet (www.reachtheworld.org).

Halstead's trip is one of a number of efforts currently under way to make learning more interesting and relevant. Schools are trying to bring the real world into the classroom. Hardly a scientific exploration takes place these days without a school system plugged into it. Educational Web sites are looking for adventurers who can show how they use math and science to solve problems in the field. Sailboats fit right into the picture - to sail requires an understanding of physics, navigation requires math, and sailors have to assess risk when they venture to exotic ports.

History of hooking up

This is not the first time schools have hooked up with sailboats. In 1982, Mame Reynolds, a Jamestown, R.I., retiree, linked local schoolchildren with sailors in The BOC (British Oxygen Corporation) Challenge, a single-handed race. "I thought, it doesn't get any better than this - you have the interdisciplinary mix of ideas plus the excitement of solo sailing," says Mrs. Reynolds, who heads up Student Ocean Challenge (www.redice.com/soc).

Reynolds's project grew until it encompassed people rowing to Antarctica, sailors trying to beat the clipper ship record to San Francisco and, now, Tall Ships sailing to the US for the millennium. "What the kids learn is that you have to know your math, navigation, and nutrition. Maybe then they think school isn't so bad," she says.

Bostonian Rich Wilson, a former teacher, has taken the concept one step further with his company, sitesALIVE! (www.sitesalive.com). In 1990, Mr. Wilson and another sailor, Steve Pettingill, had capsized off the coast of Chile in a trimaran. Throughout the trip, they tried to keep in touch with schoolchildren. "After the capsize, it was clear kids were excited about adventure coming into the classroom," he says.

Later, Wilson started using the Internet to link schools with sailing adventures, such as the Class Afloat program or the Whitbread Race, a team race around the globe. Many of the adventures have digital cameras linked to Web sites - almost all involving student to student communication. "Our intention is to expand to eight or 10 or 12 of these sites addressing different studies," he says.

Halstead's effort is one of the latest in the genre. With some money she inherited she bought the 43-foot sailboat two years ago. The crew members, who change at different ports, pay their own way. Halstead received some foundation money and donations from private individuals. "We're still looking for money," she says.

Halstead had some of her own ideas, such as teaching children how to assess risk. She decided to gear the trip toward fifth through seventh grades. And she decided to put a lot of effort into integrating the trip with school studies.

For example, the sixth-grade students at IS 90 in New York City were studying world religions when the Makulu II pulled into Bali, Indonesia. "They happened on a Buddhist cremation ceremony, videotaped it and sent it back. The students knew it was special for us and we felt very special," says Heather Ganek, a teacher at the inner-city school.

The crew of Makulu II is also helping 11th-graders at Upper St. Clair High School, located in a Pittsburgh suburb, collect African sky legends. The slaves coming to America referred to the Big Dipper as "the Drinking Gourd," for example. The information is then sent to the Upper St. Claire Middle School. "It gives our students a chance to produce something for others in the school district and they think it's fantastic," says teacher Pat Palazzolo.

Part of Halstead's effort is travelogue. For example, some of the crew hop in a taxi and go to Marrakesh, described as a "wild, bustling town, filled with donkey carts, kamikaze cab and motorbike drivers, people pushing every kind of item possible on tourists, narrow maze-like streets and endless marketplaces, snake charmers, dancers, musicians, vendors selling spices and figs and nuts and fresh-squeezed orange juice, and lots of Muslim women with only their eyes visible."

The travelogue is important, says Ganek, because it helps her sixth-graders "develop an interest in travel and cultures worldwide."

Bridging real world and class

The trip has also been a stimulus for other classes. In Morris, Minn., Pam Solvie's first-grade class has been studying water quality issues. They compare samples taken from their local river, the Pomme de Terre, with those taken by "Captain Heather" every week.

"The kids now know the difference between potable and nonpotable water," says Ms. Solvie. "We visited our water treatment plant and compared it to the one in Gibraltar when the boat was there. They've brought the ocean to the prairie."

Bringing the real world to the classroom appeals to some new educational Web sites. The Teachers Network, a nationwide group that shares curriculum and best practices, has added Reach the World to its own Web site, which hosts 30,000 visitors each month. "Our whole focus is to find content for teachers to use for their classroom," says Ellen Dempsey, the president.

Halstead's trip also caught the eye of Classroom Connect, a national group trying to integrate the Internet into classrooms. The fact that Halstead is a woman appealed to Melissa Levine, a project manager for the site. "We like to focus on women, especially adventuring or doing extreme sports," she says. "They make good role models."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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