Scarborough teacher earns opportunity to study the Arctic
This summer Emily Sherman, a science teacher at Scarborough High School won’t be going any place where she might run into one of her students.
On June 28, Sherman will be traveling to the Arctic Svalbard in northern Norway as part of a teacher fellowship to study the Arctic plants and animals in their natural habitat.
“It’s a wildlife tour. The goal is for the passengers to learn about and see Arctic wildlife,” Sherman said, adding she is expecting to see polar bears, walruses, sea birds and artic fox, as well as the Arctic tundra in full bloom.
According to a press release, Sherman was one of 14 educators around the country to earn a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, which is awarded to teachers across the country who “best demonstrate excellence in geography education.”
Sherman is one of six teachers who is making a National Geographic trip for the first time. The other eight fellows already had a relationship with National Geographic. She was the only educator from New England to earn the fellowship.
“This program recognizes exemplary educators for their commitment to improving geographic literacy and inspiring tomorrow’s leaders to be responsible caretakers of our planet,” wrote Sven-Olof Lindblad, founder of Lindblad Expeditions in a press release. “We are delighted that these outstanding educators, who are so strongly committed to hands-on geographic education, will journey to Arctic Svalbard with us.”
Sherman learned about the opportunity from an e-mail listserv for Maine science teachers, but almost didn’t apply for the grant because she didn’t think the science work she does qualified as geographic in nature
“This one talked about geographic literacy and I almost ignored it because I teach biology. I looked at it further and I made the connection that I do what they were looking for,” Sherman said.
National Geographic, she said, was looking for teachers who connect students to a particular place as part of their classroom instruction.
In the application for the fellowship Sherman explained the unit she teaches in her honors environmental science class. For the past four years, Sherman and her students have worked with the Scoodic Education and Research Center Institute, the “educational arm of Acadia National Park” to study mercury contamination in nearby rivers and wetlands.
Students go out every fall to sample mercury levels of insects and soil at the nearby Mill Brook. Students have also sampled mercury contamination along the Nonesuch River, Scarborough Marsh, wetlands off Highland Avenue, a stream near Broadturn Farm, and Capisic Pond in Portland.
‘The students are sampling the area, are looking at the vegetation, slope of the land and are testing water quality for contaminants,” Sherman said.
Sherman said the mercury contamination is coming to the area via wind currents from the Midwest and the Ohio River Valley. Similarly, the Arctic is being polluted from the air with polychlorinated biphenyls, an industrial pollutant that takes years to break down.
“The Arctic is one of the most contaminated places for PCB as anywhere on Earth and the reason for that is because of the wind currents,” Sherman said.
Sherman said she will be making the trip to the Arctic with two other fellowship winners and will be charged with leading educational activities for the nine students on board the ship. All of the students, she said, are under 14.
“The expectation while we are aboard the ship is the other teachers and I will be providing educational activities for the kids on board to keep them engaged with what we are seeing,” she said.
Sherman has never been on a trip like this, but is looking forward to the opportunity even though it comes with a warning.
“They told us to watch out for the polar bears,” she said. “We’ll be there at a time when they have young cubs. They are curious and the mother bears certainly don’t want their cubs coming up to people.”
National Geographic photographers will also be on hand to document the experience. Sherman said when she returns she will look for ways to integrate what she learned in both her role as a teacher and her role as the chairman of the energy and recycling committee in South Portland, where she lives.
“Students in Maine and probably students across the country aren’t familiar with the Arctic and the poles. Bring the poles to the students is something National Geographic is interested in,” she said.
The curriculum in Scarborough doesn’t offer her an opportunity to create a whole unit on the experience, but does allow her to bring in elements of her experience to units in both her biology class and environmental studies class.
“In the biology course I could incorporate the Arctic food chain as opposed to using the prairie food chain,” she said. “In the environmental course for freshman I could use it to teach water cycle and climate change.”
This is the second teaching fellowship Sherman has won. Recently she received a Noyce Master Teacher Fellowship for her work bringing case studies into her biology classroom. The case studies include real-life problems for which students have to find solutions. She hopes to include some case studies from her Arctic trip in the future.
“They are more engaged when they are dealing with real-world problems and not hypotheticals,” she said. “When it is something that I have dealt with personally, they are even more interested in the problem.”
Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at 282-4337, ext. 237.