'Desert rat' science teacher chills to connect kids - Tucson Local Media: El Sol

'Desert rat' science teacher chills to connect kids

Wilson's Wilkening learns in Arctic

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Posted: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 11:00 pm

Wilson K-8 seventh grade teacher Betsy Wilkening is a fifth-generation Arizonan, a self-described "desert rat through and through."

Somehow, this desert rat has found herself becoming involved in the International Polar Year, joining a science research expedition last year in the Arctic of Barrow, Alaska.

More recently, Wilkening returned from the IPY PolarTEACHER conference in Oslo, Norway.

The activities appeal to Wilkening's areas of interest — she has a degree in chemical engineering — and also serve to increase student understanding.

"I want to get them to connect better, what we do here affects polar regions, which then affects us," Wilkening said.

The International Polar Year occurs over a period of two to three years, and involves an intensive study in one concentrated field of research by thousands of scientists worldwide. Wilkening heard about IPY at a science conference in Boston and began following the fourth IPY since its kick-off in 2007.

This year's IPY focused on education and public outreach, providing opportunities to involve classrooms by posting public access lesson plans on-line. Through this Internet involvement with IPY, Wilkening heard about and applied for PolarTREC in 2009.

PolarTREC was an in-field research experience for scientists studying climate change in Barrow. Seventeen teachers were chosen to participate out of 240 applicants.

For three weeks in Barrow, Wilkening worked on a project called Ocean, Atmosphere, Sea Ice and Snowpack, looking at the chemistry involved in pollutants and how they transfer between media and accumulate in the Arctic. She also studied the physical and chemical exchange processes between the ocean atmosphere, sea ice and snowpack.

Wilkening learned more than the details of chemical properties in snow types. She also found similarities in culture.

"Despite the climate, we're not that different," she said. "They might go walrus hunting in their seal skin canoe, but then they go home and get on the Internet and do everything we do."

Wilkening shared an experience of the cold weather. Her supervisor called and asked if it was sunny outside, if she wouldn't mind taking snow samples every two hours. "I thought, 'that's easy for him to say,' I didn't tell him that the wind chill was 40 below." To stay warm on the ice, she would run up and down the polar bear tracks.

"We would cover up completely so that no skin was showing, but somehow the wind would get in and it was like a brain freeze from the outside in," Wilkening said.

Throughout, Wilkening stayed connected with her students through blogs and on-line journals in which students could submit questions.

A year later, Wilkening returned to cooler surroundings, this time in Oslo. She was one of 114 teachers from 20 countries chosen to participate.

One of the topics was "Education: Polar Science Educational Outreach and Communication."

"We would start off with keynote speakers in the morning, then hands-on things you can bring to the classroom," Wilkening said. She also reviewed a Polar Resource Lesson Plan book that was recently published, and presented her Arctic experience.

From the conference, she recognized two ways of knowing — the native ways, and the scientific ways. "It's important to combine those two ways of knowing to survive in the future," said Wilkening.

Wilkening hopes the experiences will provide her with an enhanced ability to relate environmental and earth science to her students.

"The polar regions are very foreign to students," she said. "I want them to be more globally connected and learn that everything is interconnected. If they can understand what somebody in Canada is experiencing, that they couldn't go on the sea ice because it was too thin, so they couldn't fish and then couldn't eat, it'll make a lot more sense to them than reading about it."

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