ERHS teacher goes to sea for science

Wednesday, November 21, 2018 - 16:36
  • Eagle River High School science teacher Mark Van Arsdale takes a selfie on Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska. Van Arsdale recently returned to Eagle River following two weeks at sea aboard U.S. Fish and Wildlife vessel R/V Tiglax helping scientists conduct a survey of the Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research study area through the “Teacher at Sea” program. (Photo courtesy Mark Van Arsdale)
  • The RV Tiglax. (Photo courtesy NOAA Teacher at Sea program)
  • Plankton nets hanging to dry, which Teacher at Sea participant Mark Van Arsdale called “oceanographer laundry.” (Photo by Mark Van Arsdale)
  • Trash on Kayak Island, where teacher Mark Van Arsdale made an excursion and found numerous pieces of garbage. (Photo by Mark Van Arsdale)
  • Chenega Glacier in Prince William Sound. (Photo by Mark Van Arsdale)

A brief brush with the seafaring life has given Eagle River High School science teacher Mark Van Arsdale a new appreciation for the work done by scientists working every day in some of the most far-flung and inhospitable parts of the planet.

“Definitely a take-home for me was in a day and age when we can Google any information, the sheer amount of labor that goes into producing scientific knowledge is overwhelming,” said Van Arsdale, who last month spent two weeks aboard a 121-foot research vessel in the Gulf of Alaska as part of the NOAA Teacher at Sea program.

Van Arsdale was stationed aboard the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service vessel RV Tiglax, where he worked the night shift collecting jellyfish and plankton samples. The work was tedious, time-consuming and often exhausting, but well worth the effort, he said.

“The information we were collecting is kind of critical info to und how the whole Gulf of Alaska works,” he said.

The Teacher at Sea program is designed to give classroom educators a “hands-on, real-world research experience,” according to the program’s website.

The program has worked with nearly 700 teachers since it was founded in 1990.

“By participating in this program, teachers profoundly enrich their classroom curricula, enhance their approaches to teaching science, and engage their local community with knowledge that can only be gained by living and working side-by-side, day and night, with scientists who contributed to the world’s oceanic and atmospheric scientific research.”

Van Arsdale and his team were working to collect data in the northern Gulf of Alaska through the use of several scientific instruments. In addition to collecting biological samples, the crew also took a variety of water samples through the use of sophisticated measuring devices.

Working alongside scientists and graduate students was an eye-opening experience, Van Arsdale said.

“The seriousness with which they took their work was impressive,” he said. “They wouldn’t let a single plankton fall out.”

The experience also gave Van Arsdale an appreciation for the open ocean. Sailing in water as much as three miles deep can have a profound psychological impact, said Van Arsdale, who had never before sailed out of sight of land.

“That was also really interesting to just feel the kind of gravity of the water beneath you,” he said.

Van Arsdale kept a blog during his trip, where he goes into detail about the trip — including everything from the highs of discovering new data and spotting unique sea life to the lows of seasickness. During the trip Van Arsdale got to see numerous exotic seabirds, many whales and porpoises and even some strange fish — such as the mola mola, which is normally found in warmer waters to the south.

“It was a rich experience,” he said.

One of the more eye-opening parts of the journey, he said, was a side trip to Kayak Island. There, Van Arsdale said he was struck by the amount of garbage that was washed up on the remote island. Although he’d taught his students about ocean pollution before, Van Arsdale said he’s now walked the talk.

“Now that I’ve seen it and walked around and picked it up, that really increases the authenticity,” he said.

That kind of experience is invaluable, he said, because students are naturally drawn to personal narratives.

“When you can describe a personal experience they will automatically connect with what you’re saying, they will perk up their attention,” he said.

Van Arsdale — who is the science department head at ERHS — will use his time at sea to create specific lessons for for his students. And he’ll also try to impress upon them how hard everyday scientists work to find out about the world around them.

“It was actually kind of humbling to be a part of it,” he said.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call (907) 257-4274

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