I Saw the Arctic Up Close. Now I’m Using It to Teach Math.

Dr. Leticia Guzman Ingram wrote this post.

I look around my Newcomer Math class and feel so much pride in my students. Many of these high schoolers have just arrived in Colorado from El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, or Honduras—pushed to migrate by hostile environments, economic troubles, or climate disaster and pulled by work opportunities in the tourist town of Aspen. Some came alone and do not live with their parents. Others work jobs after school. They know what it is to struggle and are thankful for the opportunity of public education. Each student has different worries and concerns. I hear it as they chat during breaks. Yet all want to be happy, with friends and stability, and they dream of their future. When I think about their future, I also think about the environment and climate they will inherit. I can tell you when the importance of these issues hit home for me as an educator. It was the day I fell in love with polar bears.

It happened two years ago, in 2019, when I was chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime hands-on learning opportunity as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. The honor included the chance to study on a Lindblad Expeditions’ Arctic voyage, which I undertook as a student, my curiosity at its peak. Was that a polar bear? No, just my imagination as I kept searching off the ship with my binoculars. I had been looking for a few days, waiting and waiting to see one. Finally, just as I was finishing eating dinner, the captain announced a polar bear sighting. It was a mama polar bear with her teenager. Both bears ran along the edge of the ice, then the teen cub ran ahead and did a belly flop into the water for mom to see. It was so funny yet so magical. I fell in love with these creatures. However, we saw only five on our trip, whereas we heard past trips averaged over a dozen sightings. Polar bears’ primary habitat is sea ice, but the ice is melting due to climate change. I felt for the bears as I wore a short-sleeved shirt while walking around on the permafrost in late June.

The balmy temperatures weren’t the only evidence of people’s impact on the Arctic environment. In this enchanting wilderness, I also saw substantial plastic trash on the shore. It had most likely arrived via ocean currents from other global locations. I was appalled. The Arctic has a relatively small human population, but it clearly is not immune from pollution elsewhere.

After I came back to my little mountain town of Basalt, Colorado, I took a part-time job as the education consultant for Global Choices, a nonprofit organization dedicated to stimulating action on the ice crisis. As I spoke with various climate advocates worldwide, I learned that many countries focus on climate literacy starting at a young age. In 2020 Italy began requiring that every grade include environmental education. Countries including Finland, India, China, and Japan have mandated climate literacy in their national curricula. The United States is not there yet; when I surveyed some of Global Choices’ young American ice advocates, they claimed they didn’t have a class that promoted climate literacy until college.

I believe it is essential that educators interweave climate literacy into all contents. We need to respect and be responsible for our world. We can do this by recognizing we are all leaders and problem solvers and by helping young people see themselves as capable of solving this crisis. They can make a difference, but we need to empower them. That is my role.

On the expedition, I began to consider the waste that enters the water in my hometown, and I became acutely aware of the detrimental effect that pollution in my community could have on far-flung places like the Arctic. I wanted to make my students aware of this too. In spring 2020, my biology class began using the Litterati app to monitor and measure types of trash in the community and help clean up the earth. However, when the pandemic hit, it stopped the project short. This year I decided to do the same project in my math classes, but with a twist. Not only will students be cleaning up our town, but they will also then analyze the data they collect on the amount and types of litter in our community. I am beginning with my Newcomer Math class. As a warmup to the project, I have been showing my class one Arctic picture each day, including of animals (they love hearing fun facts about them!) and of litter.  

The project consists of the following steps:

  1. Plan a field trip to a local park
  2. At least a day before the field trip, have all students download Litterati on their phones
  3. For more accurate data, have students turn on their phones’ location services—this allows the app to tag the precise location of each item
  4. Divide the class into groups and assign roles, including photographer, collector (responsible for picking up and disposing of litter), reporter (responsible for tagging photos), and mathematician. All students will be mathematicians and analyze data
  5. Discuss as a class the purpose of the trip, and give clear instructions: Find a piece of trash, take a picture, pick it up, and dispose of it; then, tag your photos and upload them to the app
  6. Have the class analyze the data. Students can draw pie charts or bar graphs to represent a data set including several different types of litter. They can then convert between fractions, decimals, and percentages
  7. Beginning in the next class period, review the data together, discussing questions such as: What was the most common type of litter? What surprised you? What difference do trash cans make? What could we do as a class to help reduce litter in the area? Do you think more litter is generated on certain days? How can we make a difference?
Students use the Litterati app to document a piece of litter outside their school building. (Photo courtesy of Leticia Guzman Ingram)

The information students gather will lead to deeper engagement in the class around what we can do locally to make a difference globally. Environmental education should be interdisciplinary, and extending the project to other subjects could amplify its impact:

  • In English, students could write a letter to Town Council about their findings and what we could do as a community to change for the better
  • In art, students could make and display photos to raise awareness
  • In geography, students could map out where different types of trash are found and their origins
  • In science, students could study what makes up different types of waste and how it affects the natural world

While the Arctic may be far from Colorado, people here know what it’s like to see the natural world change in front of their eyes: Two summers ago, many of my students evacuated their homes due to wildfires. Educators, parents, leaders, and community members have to ensure the younger generation is prepared to take on the stewardship of our planet. I want to teach my students to be explorers committed to protecting the earth. Hopefully someday I get the opportunity to go back to the Arctic and see the effects of incorporating climate literacy into all subjects in schools. If we are successful, I will see not five but dozens of polar bears, and maybe I’ll also see one of my past students aboard the ship as a researcher.

How might you incorporate climate or environmental literacy into your own teaching? Have you tried, and if so, what lessons would you share with other educators? Join the conversation on Twitter @NatGeoEducation and on Facebook @natgeoeducation.

Dr. Leticia Guzman Ingram is a high school math teacher in the Rocky Mountains and the education consultant for Global Choices. She was the 2016 Colorado Teacher of the Year and a 2019 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. You can find out more about Leticia and follow her @teachwithleticia on Instagram, @lingram2016 on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Header image: Leticia poses during her 2019 Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship expedition. (Photo courtesy of Leticia Guzman Ingram)

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