The following post was written by 2015 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Ellie Clin following her expedition to Antarctica. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.
I knew coming back from Antarctica wouldn’t be easy.
When I returned to my classroom from my weeks in Antarctica as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, it quickly became clear how difficult it would be to describe the continent. I needed to convey something tangible—something that my first-grade students could understand.
A Land of Extremes
While the superlatives of Antarctica are well-noted — it is the coldest, windiest, driest, and highest land mass — the reality of the continent’s magnitude is not commonly appreciated, perhaps an artifact of the way it is portrayed on many of our maps, as a thin line stretched across the bottom of the world.
As I shared photographs from my expedition with students, it occurred to me that due to the nature of both photography (a subject captured within a single rectangular frame, each frame the same size as the last) and the Antarctic landscape (a vast expanse of white with few human-made objects to provide a sense of scale) many of the fauna I was showing all looked roughly the same size.
How could I ask my students to appreciate the spectacle of a leopard seal, as long as two refrigerators laid end-to-end? How could they imagine finding a krill, shorter than my pinky finger—and realizing how many billions must swim in Antarctica’s freezing waters to support the penguins, fish, squid, seals, and whales that live there?
Back in the Classroom
So my first-graders began a mathematical, geographical, and environmental inquiry.
It started with the children’s primary interest: penguins! Many of my students are still smaller than an emperor penguin, while some of their younger siblings are just about the height of an Adélie. By creating a life-sized mural of the 17 penguin species, my students understood the true sizes of these creatures.
Then we looked at data, spread out the measuring tapes, and built three-dimensional models of Antarctic pinnipeds, from the relatively diminutive crabeater seal to the massive male southern elephant seal. “This seal is bigger than three kids!” they exclaimed beside a leopard seal.
Next, we brought out rolls of kraft paper, paintbrushes, and rulers to trace the wingspans of Antarctica’s birds of flight. While one student could hold the wingspan of a snowy sheathbill, it took many to unroll the wandering albatross’ wings.
We also compared the scale of Antarctica’s inorganic residents. To understand just how large an iceberg could be, we looked at interactive maps with polygons overlaid onto our entire neighbourhood.
Finally, we brought meter sticks outside and laid them end-to-end to measure out a humpback whale. A simple prompt was all that was needed to envision the magnitude: “Just imagine how many krill one whale would have to eat in one day…”
Size Is in the Hands of the Ruler-Holder
Conveying a sense of any place to someone who has never been there is a daunting task. Photos and videos go part of the way, but we can do more to make the places we are studying real in the minds of our students.
Next time, during that lesson on French architecture, why not walk the height of the Eiffel Tower with your students? While studying the ecology of the Mekong delta, try having them draw its size over an interactive map of their hometown to see its scale. If investigating endemic Galápagos species, might you calculate how many students would weigh the same as a giant tortoise?
To learn more about Ellie’s expedition, click here.
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