Idaho Meets Antarctica

Sharee Barton teaches local students to explore

Published online: Jan 08, 2021 Articles, Education And Arts Emily FitzPatrick
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In 2019, 45 teachers were invited to take part in National Geographic’s Lindblad Expeditions through the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship. Sharee Barton, a teacher in the Madison School District, was one of the lucky few chosen to take part. 

The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a competitive program that teams up with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic to give educators life-changing experiences to bring back to their classrooms. Lindblad Expedition features destinations including Iceland, Alaska, Galapagos and much more. 

Why Antarctica? 

Barton wanted to visit one of the few spots on earth without a human footprint. As an outdoor enthusiast, it was her dream to see what nature looked like in its element—undisturbed. There are no permanent human dwellings in Antarctica. Scientists are able to get permits to temporarily live on bases to complete research. Barton obtained a similar permit for her trip.

“I told them I would be so excited to go to any one of the locations,” Barton recalled. “They’re all amazing. I said, ‘I really want to go to a place that is about as remote as possible, that has the least amount of human footprint.’ I was really crossing my fingers for Antarctica.”

When Barton discovered she had not only been chosen for the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, but would also get to fulfill her dream of visiting Antarctica, she was thrilled. A teacher with 31 years of experience at the time, Barton knew the expedition would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to not only travel, but connect with educators from a variety of backgrounds. 

Collaboration Across the World

Traveling to Antarctica would be a bonding experience for any traveling group, but add a collective interest and you create a recipe for a lifelong bond. Out of the 45 teachers selected for the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship online, nine chose to go to Antarctica.

“I was on the ship with two great teachers, including Jean Turney from St. Louis, Missouri and Erin Kowalevicz from the Washington, D.C. area,” said Barton. “We collaborated every night. We’d sit down together, share our day and ask how we could implement what we had learned. We’re very close now. We call ourselves the ‘South Pole Sisters.’”

Collaboration with the teachers she had grown close with during her expedition didn’t end after returning home from Antarctica. The 45 teachers remain connected online so they can show how they’re implementing the knowledge they gained from their expeditions and how they are adjusting to unexpected things such as COVID-19.

“The empathy and the connection of this group of friends is really a beautiful experience. It’s a place where we can share our personal hurdles and journeys, as well as our professional ideas,” Barton said. “Every time I am wondering what I could do to help my students I just throw it out on this professional network. Then, I have ideas for the next day and I hopefully contribute to that bank of ideas as well.”

Following the Penguins

On her trip, Barton encountered scientists doing penguin research. One of those scientists was Dr. Heather Lynch, the shifting breeding areas of gentoo penguins. Penguins spend 90% of their lives in water and the other 10% on land for the purpose of breeding. In the past, those breeding grounds have been relatively consistent. That begs the question—why are the penguins shifting their course?

After DNA testing through blood samples, Dr. Lynch has a few hypotheses about why the penguins have decided to slowly move away from what was thought to be a permanent nesting ground. However, a confirmation will require more research. This experience proved to Barton that science is always changing, giving us something new to learn every day.

However, this wasn’t just a learning experience for Barton. She carried this knowledge and some of the research she had gathered to bring home to Madison, where she integrated the experience into her science curriculum.

“I feel like I became a student. I became an explorer,” said Barton. “So, I’ve been trying to incorporate the idea of each student seeing themselves as exploring in my classroom. I don’t really mean that they have to explore science. You can explore poetry, you can explore history, you can explore all kinds of subjects, but as an explorer you become an active participant and you are more engaged. You’re more passionate and you have more questions, so you learn so much more.”

Q&A with Sharee Barton

IFM: What are some of the things you learned as an explorer in Antarctica?

SB:  I didn’t really understand the dependence of sea life, specifically what’s under the ice on the entire ecosystem in Antarctica, before my trip. For example, krill are essential to everything that breeds in Antarctica and without it the whole ecosystem would be disrupted. So, learning about the balance of the ecosystem there taught me that everything in life has an order, even in Idaho.

IFM: As a selected teacher for the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, do you get access to certain resources other teachers might not?

SB: National Geographic has a huge teacher resource bank online that any teacher can go to and utilize. If I have questions or if I need support I have a great sounding board at National Geographic, but they also have an educational online program where teachers can take classes and learn how to do service learning or how to do project-based learning. There are very few things they charge for. National Geographic knows that children are tomorrow’s planetary stewards, so that’s their intrinsic motivation.

IFM: Was there anything special you did with your students before the big trip?

SB: One thing I did with my students before I left was compare Idaho to Antarctica. We compared them in every way—size, climate and plant life. Even though it seems so starkly different, we were able to find connections.

For example, we looked at a downstream map and realized that if someone were to litter by dropping a plastic bag and it fell in the Henry’s Fork River or the Snake River, it could actually end up in Antarctica. That moment taught us how important it is for everyone to do their part so places like Antarctica can remain pristine.

IFM: What is one memorable story from your time in Antarctica?

SB: One day, I was on the bridge with the captain and we were going there. There weren’t very many people up yet. And he said, “Hey, there’s some whales out there.” And I looked and looked and looked, I could not find anywhere else. 

I said, “I think you need your eyes checked. Where are the whales?” He then pointed out these rings of bubbles in the water. 

He proceeded to tell me the story of bubbling, of fishermen that would sail along following the rings in the water. He explained how humpback whales are enormous and they eat krill. And so they are looking for pods of krill so that they can make the most out of their experience eating. And so, they get together in a group and they swim around in circles around this pod, and then they blow bubbles out of their blowhole. As the bubbles rise, it provides a trap for the krill because krill can’t form against any current. One at a time, the whales swim down to the bottom, come up through the middle with their mouths open wide and eat all the krill. 

Sure enough, we got there and there were humpback whales. This demonstrates the total interconnectedness of nature. 


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