As a graduate student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I am part of a six-person science team that studies reproduction and molt in Weddell seals. Having already spent almost two seasons at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, I appreciate the surreal nature of living in one of the world's most extreme environments, and realize that the experience is something most people can only dream of. With this in mind, I feel very strongly that our research should be integrated with education to the largest extent possible. When our field team arrived back in Alaska following our very first season on "the ice", a fellow graduate student, Amy Kirkham, and I collaborated with a PolarTREC teacher to develop a Weddell seal-themed outreach program for Anchorage School District K-12 students. We created a life-size, stuffed Weddell seal we affectionately named 'Patches,' and used it as a demonstration tool to show students how we collect morphometric data while in the field. We had the students conduct an activity in which the measure the seal's length and girth in order to estimate volume. The activity was meant to bring real techniques that we use in Antarctica into the classroom, giving students an idea of what their futures could look like if they became biologists. Patches traveled with us from classroom to classroom, receiving a fabric patch with each visit that displayed the name of each student that we interacted with – over 1200 students in one year. In the next few years, we plan to build on our hugely successful outreach program by visiting additional K-12 students in the Anchorage School District and in other parts of Alaska.
Photo: Roxanne, Amy and "Patches" (photographer: Rachel Lee)