LASA teacher David Walker waddles forward on the slippery terrain, his face partially obscured by the beak protruding from his penguin suit. The beak’s sunny yellow hue contrasts with the bleakness of the icy landscape. A group of native penguins walks along the rocky coastline nearby, oblivious to Walker observing them a couple feet away. By sticking his arms back and waddling forward, his movements almost perfectly mimicked the penguins’. This past winter break, Walker travelled to the icy landmass through the Grosvenor Teaching Fellowship, which is sponsored by a partnership between National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions.
“It’s super cool, I applied to this program, basically wrote some essays, and most of the essays were about how I would implement whatever experience I got into my classroom,” Walker said. “I then submitted a resume to them and applied and, as opposed to most of the other programs that I applied to, I got into this one, which was awesome.”
When he applied to join the trip, Walker was unaware of his future destination, as National Geographic conducts trips in regions ranging from the Galapagos to the North Pole. Instead, he indicated times of the year that he was available and one of those times was winter break, which falls within the Antarctic summer and tourism season. As the process for applying was relatively simple and accessible, he expressed interest in convincing other teachers to take this opportunity.
“It was just an application process and any teacher can apply,” Walker said. “I’m trying to get a lot more people to apply to it because there were music teachers there, librarians, math teachers, English teachers, it’s not just for science teachers.”
Walker said he was interested in the diverse and bizarre organisms found in Antarctica, such as penguins, different species of birds and whales, as well as the environment that holds these organisms. These creatures evolved to be unique due to Antarctica’s isolation from other continents, a subject that is relevant in Walker’s Planet Earth classes. Walker knew he needed to create an idea for a lesson that he could implement in the classroom based on his soon-to-be experiences, so using these species in class activities would be a great way to incorporate his experiences with the curriculum.
“We deal a lot with Allopatric speciation and how geologic isolation yields different organisms in Planet Earth, so that’s what I wanted to focus on with the goal of doing something for Planet Earth,” Walker said. “In Planet Earth we learn about Hawaii and the Galapagos, and so I wanted to turn my trip into one of those examples, where we could go there virtually and learn more about the place. I was really focused on elements of isolation that led to unique organisms.”
He took time to prepare for the trip by reading and researching extensively about Antarctica and the organisms that live there. He also contacted Professor Julia Clarke’s lab at UT to gain further insight on the geologic history of Antarctica and on the Drake Passage, the body of water that passes between South America and Antarctica. Walker’s interests lie in geographically isolated places, and as the Drake Passage is a major part of the reason why Antarctica is secluded, it drew Walker’s attention.
“The Drake Passage, which connects South America to Antarctica, has incredibly violent water because there’s no continental margin to block currents at that latitude, so we got to cross that,” Walker said. “It wasn’t as crazy when we crossed it, but that’s actually one of those barriers that not much can get across, so that was one of the things I was focusing on and what showed up there and how that related to geology.”
Once he got to actually leave to go on this trip, Walker said that he enjoyed talking to the other teachers and employees on the boat. He saw that all of them were very informed on the region where they were, so they were able to offer new knowledge that helped Walker better understand the landscape.
“It was very interesting to talk to the staff on the boat,” Walker said. “They were all naturalists and photojournalists and videographers and people that work for National Geographic, and it was incredibly interesting to talk to people who have those types of careers.”
Along with getting to know many intriguing people he might not have met otherwise, there were many cool experiences that Walker had that were particularly memorable. He said that one of the most unforgettable ones happened when the boat came to a sudden stop in the ice and they couldn’t move further south.
“About 360 degrees was just flat ice… and, in the middle of that ice, there were two penguins standing, just hanging out, in the middle of just nothingness,” Walker said. “It really struck me because I was thinking that this is going on down here all the time, just things hanging out in the middle of nowhere in a very inhospitable area.”
The most important part about the trip for Walker was learning new things about this area that he could use in his classes. He knew that he wanted to implement his own travels into the classroom, as he finds that sharing personal experiences can alter the way the material is taught.
“I think that a lot of the activities that I’m going to try to bring to Planet Earth class are place-focused activities from around the world, but focused on spots where I’ve been because that gives you a whole different level of knowledge about the place instead of just reading about it,” Walker said. “I gained a ton of knowledge from doing this that I can use in my class, but also the experience of having gone will help me be better in the classroom.”