Bringing the world to class

Teacher hopes her trip to frigid Antarctica fires up students’ interest in traveling, learning

Sarah Viren
Houston Chronicle

The students in Daphne Rawlinson’s elementary school science classes don’t quite get it when she says: I am going to Antarctica.

Sure, she’s showed them on the globe, but that looks like a few inches away, not more than 13,000 miles. And when she talks about cold, many can only compare that to last week in Houston, when temperatures dipped into the 30s.

“Most of our students, or a lot of our students, haven’t even been out of the state of Texas,” Rawlinson said. “So to get them to visualize that you are going to the other side of the world… They don’t have a lot of understanding.”

That’s one reason the teacher and science specialist at Houston’s J. Will Jones Elementary School proposed the trip, and why Fund for Teachers agreed pick up the tab, which Rawlinson estimates in the thousands.

Protected continent
The Houston-based organization awards travel grants each year to teachers nationwide. It has sponsored art and cultural studies in Egypt and research on humpback whales off the coast of Brazil.

Rawlinson is the first of its fellows traveling all the way south, to the land of penguins, seals and mammoth glaciers.

The Houston native said she has always wanted to go where the ice is. But Antarctica is attractive for other reasons.

“What has been the most fascinating thing to me is to see how the entire world has come together to protect this one spot,” she said. “It is protected by the Antarctica Treaty, and it is maintained for scientific research.”

No one country governs Antarctica; instead, governments work together to allow researchers from different areas to study its habitat. Tourism is limited and military activities banned.

Rawlinson is going through a graduate study-abroad program with the University of Georgia. On Dec. 26, she and a group of students will fly to South America, where they will board a boat for a day-and-a-half trip to the ice continent.

Once there, she will spend her nights sleeping on the boat (there are no hotels or gift shops in Antarctica, Rawlinson likes to remind those asking about her accommodations) and her days researching the icy habitat, keeping a journal and taking pictures and video.

A tool to ace TAKS
Rawlinson’s plan is to return home Jan. 9 with enough material to form a life-science unit on the continent for her students.

deally her lesson plan will inspire students to travel when they grow up but also help improve their science-test passing rates on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests, which three years ago were in the teens.

The scores picked up last year but still need work, said Brian Flores, principal of the school, which has a high population of economically disadvantaged students.

“The whole key for children learning is making those real-life connections,” he said.

“These kids don’t have the opportunity to go to museums all the time. They don’t have the opportunity to travel out of the country or state, so when we have the opportunity to really teach something like this from real-life experience we jump on board.”

To prepare her for her trip, the Georgia program sent Rawlinson a four-page packing list. “In 10-point font,” she emphasized.

She bought a down parka, insulated ski pants and gloves lined with fleece, which she is supposed to cover with insulated mittens. She’ll also have a journal and her digital camera, which takes video.

She hopes to get footage of her boat trip through the notoriously rough Drake Passage and shots of her alongside penguins, anything that would inspire her students.

“Kids are like little sponges,” she said. “They are so interested. If you get them talking about something, they just keep going and going.”