Sailing Away from the Ordinary Classroom ; Science Teachers Spend a Summer Learning at Sea - and Hope to Bring New Ideas Back to Their Classes

The Christian Science Monitor, August 22, 2000 | Go to article overview

Sailing Away from the Ordinary Classroom ; Science Teachers Spend a Summer Learning at Sea - and Hope to Bring New Ideas Back to Their Classes


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."

Whipping winds

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. …

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