Sailing away from the ordinary classroom
Science teachers spend a summer learning at sea - and hope to bring new ideas back to their classes.
WOODS HOLE, MASS. — It's 3 a.m. on a charcoal-black, fog-bound night as the Westward, a 125-foot staysail schooner, glides silently over Cape Cod's Stellwagen Bank. The fog horn sounds its three-tone warning - one long hollow blast followed by two short baritone calls. And Wendy Edelbrock, a grade-school science teacher from Washington State, stands her watch at the helm, steering the ship and scanning the horizon, searching for signs of movement across the bow.
This is no ordinary teacher's summer vacation.
In a season teachers usually reserve for relaxation and catching up on reading after nine months of nonstop action, Mrs. Edelbrock has headed back to school. Along with 20 other competitively selected teachers who have spent from one to 15 years in the classroom, she traveled to the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, Mass., a 30-year-old organization dedicated to teaching oceanography and marine science aboard one of two traditional sailing ships, the
Westward and the Corwith Cramer.
For 10 days, the teachers sailed a giant figure eight, one loop heading south out of Woods Hole and a second loop north into Massachusetts Bay. The remaining time was spent on shore, developing research questions and later analyzing collected data.
SEA's five-week program is one of a half-dozen summer programs funded by the National Science Foundation with a goal of integrating actual scientific research into everyday high school classrooms - taking science beyond textbooks and into the real world.
The National Science Foundation - with summer programs in oceanography, astrophysics, forestry, and even polar science - isn't alone in its efforts to educate teachers. Across the United States, summer courses on topics ranging from mathematics to media relations were booked solid, the demand far outstripping space available.
All of which may sound a bit counterintuitive to the nonteacher. Summer is, after all, supposed to be one of the great rewards of a teacher's lifestyle.
But many teachers see it as a chance to sharpen their skills for the coming year.
"The fact that more teachers are using the summer for professional improvement is a signal that they are taking their work very seriously and are very dedicated," says Linda Greyser, associate director of programs in professional education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. "Teachers take seriously the need for new knowledge, not just in content but in pedagogy."
Pedagogy and dedication to teaching, however, are far from Greg Wong's mind on day three of Westward's "W-169B" expedition. The barometer is falling and winds whip out of the southeast. Throughout the wee morning hours, the breeze stiffens as Westward pitches and strains under heavy seas.
Below deck, having finished dawn watch from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., Mr. Wong, a science teacher from Arkansas, finds himself struggling to stand, let alone think about teaching or science.
"The Westward puts teachers in a very unfamiliar environment - we're not in a classroom out here, you can't even stand up the way you do on shore," explains Pat Harcourt, master teacher aboard the Westward. "The teacher is a novice coming on board. It helps to give the teacher an empathy and an understanding of what it feels like to be a learner coming into a classroom."
As Wong and his fellow teachers glue their eyes on a heaving horizon, Captain John Wigglesworth beats for Great Salt Pond, a protected bay on Block Island. This is no perfect storm, little more than a squall really, but for the amateur crew, it's a warning: Respect the ocean.
If empathy and respect are byproducts of the SEA experience, science is the fuel that creates them.
"Science is king, it gives us credibility, a reason, to go where we go," says Chris McGuire, the ship's first mate, or second in command.
Through fair weather and through storms, Westward's mission remains the same: to carry out four different science experiments - and not just cookbook, classroom science, but original research that seeks to shed new light on old questions.
One experiment looks at the morphology of the sea floor south of Block Island with hopes of ascertaining if Block Island Sound flooded catastrophically - as teachers hypothesize - or slowly, as is currently believed.
Rough conditions at sea limit the research Westward carried out to answer this question, but the act of designing the question, developing the research strategy, and attempting to carry it out
with rock dredges across the bottom and side-scan sonar imaging were what made scientists out of teachers.
"For a teacher to learn they can do science with a researcher and become a member of the science community, not just teaching, is very heady," says Wayne Sukow, a program director at the National Science Foundation.
Mr. Sukow sees this experience as an obvious way to integrate research into US classrooms and therefore make science practical and real.
Repeating these science experiments back in the classroom isn't always easy, but recreating the shipboard experience is nearly impossible.
"I truly believe SEA is about the romance of going to sea on a sailing ship," Harcourt says. "The essence of the appeal is that there are very rare opportunities to get out on the ocean, and even rarer opportunities to get out on a sailing ship."
For many, it can be the challenge of a lifetime. The ship Westward and the ocean itself act as great equalizers - replacing chalkboards and grade books with jib sheets and teak decks.
A swaying ship, as the classroom, forces each new crew to come together. There are few jobs aboard a ship that anyone can do alone. Teamwork is key to survival and learning to work harmoniously in cramped space is not just desirable, it is required.
"Out here, the only way you're going to get away from everyone is in your own mind," explains Dave Inskeep, a mild-mannered teacher from Kokomo, Ind. "[SEA] brings teachers together in a way that teachers don't usually come together in the school."
A different horizon
As Wendy Edelbrock guides Westward through the Cape Cod fog, 2,500 miles to the west, Jim Hoffman, a science teacher from Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, Ind., is focusing his eyes on an even more-distant horizon: the Andromeda galaxy.
Like the Westward experience, the Research Based Science Education (RBSE) program at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory on Kitt Peak, near Tucson, Ariz., is immersion-based and intense.
Suzanne Jacoby, director of RBSE, says many teachers are ill-prepared to teach science, having been taught from books and given little exposure to authentic research. As a result, the emphasis at RBSE is on inquiry - figuring things out through self-directed questioning, just as a real scientist looks at the world.
Taking images of the Andromeda galaxy with the National Science Foundation's 2.1-meter telescope on the summit of Kitt Peak, Hoffman and 15 other teachers proved the point by discovering three novae - thermonuclear explosions on the surfaces of stars, which had never before been seen.
"There's a lot of excitement of discovery in astronomy, seeing something for the first time," Ms. Jacoby says. "It's a really authentic experience they can then take back to the classroom."
It's an experience that Teresa Roelofsen, a science teacher from Bridgeport, Conn., and an RBSE graduate, is certain will carry over into her classroom.
"I can't think of any other program I've been exposed to where kids do real research," she explains, referring to the fact that she's learning new ways to get kids to be real scientists.
Will it help in the classroom?
And while discovering novae may sound like a complex science experiment for high- schoolers, Roelofsen has faith in her students' abilities. "I see now how easy it is to manipulate the data sets. It opened my eyes to the fact that students can do it."
As summer vacations end in the next few weeks and students head back to school, the question remains: How effective will these teachers be in bringing their experience back into the classroom? The answer is uncertain, but if Greg Wong's enthusiasm is any indication, chances are good that thousands of students will be in for a wonderful new introduction to science.
"The Westward makes science so real, it makes you an expert, and that's really what you need in the classroom," he says. "Anyone can teach from a book, but being able to give real life experience is teaching kids reality, and kids enjoy and internalize it more."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society