In July and August of 2012, three K-12 Partnership teachers traveled to Toolik, Alaska to participate in a research experience as a part of the LTER Math Science Partnership. Marty Buehler from Hastings High School, Mary Grintals from Northeast Middle School, and Lisa Wininger from Plainwell Middle School all made the two-day trip up to Toolik to help collect data for the annual “Toolik Pluck.” The teachers spent long hours in the field and the lab collecting plant, soil, and microbial samples.
The teachers flew from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Anchorage, Alaska, and finally to Deadhorse, Alaska, where they took a van down Dalton Highway to the Toolik Artic Research site, about three hours south of the Artic Sea. At the camp, the teachers were able to meet with many researchers and students, and they got to talk with them during the many hours they spent collecting and dissecting plant and soil samples from the research plots nearby. Lisa said, “The Arctic Pluck sounded so benign and leisurely, as if we would wander around and smell the flowers. In reality, it was a deep dive into the moist acidic tundra, complete with hours of clipping tips from mosses, pulling apart multiple species of plants that originally looked identical, but eventually began to take on their own unique appearances to me. One sample could be sorted and labeled in a couple of hours or it could take triple that. I broke my nails, bloodied my cuticles, and was covered in dirt from chest to knees, but became weirdly fascinated by the process. By the end of those days, each tundra sample had a personality that revealed itself through exacting scrutiny, before it was reduced to a cardboard box, full of small yellow envelopes ready for the drying oven.”
Mary added, “[We were] digging through the soils layer for rhizomes to see which plants are propagating and where they were headed for when there is ample nitrogen (nutrient) versus low nutrient (control).”
When the teachers weren’t collecting soil and plant samples, they were able to work on several other research projects (collecting fish and mushrooms, among other things). In their spare time, they listened to seminars from researchers, went and looked for wildlife, enjoyed the 24-hour daylight, and even went into the 160 degree Fahrenheit sauna! Marty even swam in Toolik Lake very briefly.
Marty said, “It was all quite a surreal experience. I doubt there are many places like this in our world. I hope it can be preserved. Being able to just look around, observe that place and time on Earth, discuss it with others, have shared observations, was so valuable. Of course we were able to see what anyone would consider the incredulousness of that place, but even what the locals might consider mundane, I found amazing. I felt like one of my kids discovering the world for the first time. I felt like a kid again, and to walk around in that sort of fascination with like-minded colleagues was so refreshing, motivating, and uplifting to this ‘old man’ that I cannot begin to express to you my gratitude.”
Explains Dr. Sara Syswerda, MSP Project Coordinator at KBS, “This program provides Michigan science teachers with real world science experience that they can take back into their classrooms. After seeing it firsthand, teachers can talk to their students about issues like climate change and biodiversity from a different perspective. In addition, these sorts of programs build confidence and leadership skills that benefit the whole school district.”
Funding for this program was provided by the National Science Foundation through the LTER Math Science Partnership program.