Teacher at Sea alum connects students in Alaska to NOAA science

In the tundras of western coastal Alaska sits a remote Yup’ik village called Scammon Bay. A town of fewer than 500, its people travel on 4-wheelers or snowmobiles, and there are no roads connecting it elsewhere. Coming or going requires multiple planes and cooperative weather. It’s a beautiful place to live, but science teacher Mary Cook knows that the isolation can be a hurdle for her and her students. Cook works to find ways to inspire them to dream big and tackle challenging subjects.

Mary Cook, left, was a Teacher at Sea in 2016. She continues to make an impact by connecting her students with NOAA science and scientists.
Mary Cook, left, was a Teacher at Sea in 2016. She continues to make an impact by connecting her students with NOAA science and scientists. (NOAA Teacher at Sea)

To directly connect her students to scientific discovery, Cook joined NOAA scientists as a Teacher at Sea aboard R/V Norseman II offsite link in 2016 for some first-hand research experience. At sea in Glacier Bay, Alaska, Cook and scientists collected underwater images and biological samples to document the geographic range of a deep-sea coral. Every day, her school projected images from her blog in the cafeteria so the whole student body could follow along.

“Being a Teacher at Sea gives me more credibility when I go back to the classroom,” Cook explains. “My students know I was on a ship working with real scientists doing real research.” Inspired by her voyage, Cook and her students built model ships, studied water pressure and robotics, and researched corals and Glacier Bay National Park.

Mary Cook, Teacher at Sea Alum, supports her students in Scammon Bay, Alaska.

Glacier Bay is in Alaska, but it is still 1,000 miles away from Scammon Bay. So Cook sought ways to build on her students’ enthusiasm and engage them in science closer to home. In such a rural location, Cook’s students “don’t have a lot of personal interaction with highly-degreed people in the science world.” She wanted to introduce her students to researchers whose work would be relevant to them.

In November 2017, NOAA Teacher at Sea Program and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation Teacher at Sea Alumni Association provided support to send Dr. Diane Stanitski, from NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory, and Dr. John Adler, from the National Ecological Observatory Network, to visit Scammon Bay School for two days. 

During their visit, Stanitski and Adler taught students about the climate zones in Alaska and guided them in taking their own surface temperature measurements. Stanitski presented her research tracking environmental responses to changes in snow cover. Each class joined Adler outside to fly a drone over Scammon Bay. Afterward, they built a 3D map of the school from the images they collected.

During a visit from two scientists, Mary Cook’s students in Scammon Bay, Alaska, participated in a drone demonstration and several other science activities.

Cook knows this type of relationship building is formative for her students. “I just think if you know somebody personally, just like my students now know an engineer and a climatologist… that just goes deep. It’s a deep impact on a young person.”

In her teaching, Cook tries to engage her remote community in emerging STEM fields. By connecting her students to relevant scientific research, Cook believes these experiences prepare her students to succeed when they travel out of Scammon Bay, to Anchorage, Fairbanks, or beyond. “NOAA and the Teacher at Sea Program have been the best way to help me reach that goal,” she says.

To learn more about Mary Cook's adventures, read her children's book offsite link and watch a video about her time in the Teacher at Sea program.

This story was originally published in the Fiscal Year 2018 NOAA Education Accomplishments Report