24 Fourth Graders + a National Geographic Explorer = Magic

Educator Sharee Barton wrote this post.

In the spring of last year, National Geographic Explorer Rosa Vásquez Espinoza stood behind a tree in Yellowstone National Park, waiting to surprise 24 fourth-grade students with whom she’d been Zooming for several months. Suddenly, a voice yelled “Watch out” and Rosa turned around to see a huge bison walking in her direction. Rosa quickly moved away from the bison, while nearby I stood with the students, leading them in a mindfulness activity. When the students opened their eyes, there was Rosa—their Explorer inspiration—right in front of them!

This moment was the culmination of my year-long Educator-Explorer Exchange with Rosa. In Yellowstone, students learned about microorganisms around Grand Prismatic Spring, got a crash course on using field microscopes, and practiced identifying macroinvertebrates along the Firehole River with BYU-Idaho professor Ryan Sargeant. At another station, the students’ classroom teacher, Tricia Galer, supported them in creating artistic representations of their experience that day. Tyler Barton, an outdoor educator and naturalist who also happens to be my husband, led the students in scat identification and connected this to the importance of microbes. It was a great way to cap off the Exchange, especially because in the beginning I was unsure how Rosa and I would connect.

Educator Sharee Barton, Explorer Rosa Vásquez Espinoza, and the 24 students who participated in their Educator-Explorer Exchange partnership come together in Yellowstone National Park for a day of science and exploration.

The Educator-Explorer Exchange is a year-long, two-way professional development opportunity. Friends had shared glowing reports with me about how the experience had helped them elevate their professionalism, so I decided to apply. When I found out I was paired with an Explorer who studies extremophiles, I wondered, How will this work with nine-year-olds? I was so excited to get to know Rosa but also questioned, Where is this going to go?

At the time, Rosa was studying the Boiling River, a geothermally heated river in her home country of Peru. She and I listed the different goals of her project. Then, as gifted and talented coordinator for our district, I went to Tricia, a fourth-grade teacher, and said, “Let’s take a look at your science standards and see where this can support your curriculum.” Teachers can’t afford to give up time for something that doesn’t match standards. In the end, we found many opportunities to connect to Rosa’s exploration. Our goal was to take biochemistry and make it accessible to nine-year-olds. And, we did!

We began our exploration by focusing on the Boiling River. We wondered how there could be a river with boiling-hot water in the middle of the Amazon, when the nearest active volcano is over 400 miles away. The students started speculating all the reasons they thought this could happen. To get a firsthand perspective, I suggested we ask a primary source: “Would you like to talk to an Explorer who has actually been to the Boiling River and worked on this project?” That’s when Rosa entered the picture.

We Zoomed with Rosa about every two weeks during the months of January, February, March, and April. In our first session, Rosa introduced herself and the importance of microbiology. She challenged the students to think about what causes heat and how the Boiling River might affect the surrounding ecosystem. The students dove into researching the Amazon and geothermal features for the next two weeks, then we met with Rosa again. Each time we met, she gave more information about her work and invited students to replicate her research locally. As this pattern continued, Rosa became a mentor and a friend to all involved.

As part of the Educator-Explorer Exchange, Sharee created this lesson outline to guide students in researching, discussing, and presenting on Peru’s Boiling River, whose microorganisms Rosa has studied. How might you adapt this lesson?

Having constant exchanges with Rosa fed the students’ curiosity. And, now they had a professional to consult. As we were working in the classroom, sometimes students would have a question. I’d say, “I don’t know. Let’s call Rosa.” I would get on WhatsApp, give her a call, and hand the phone to the student. At first it surprised the students. They were intimidated. I said, “Wait, you have the question; you talk to her.” So, they would start talking with Rosa. Through these interactions, she helped the students see themselves as scientists and explorers.

In their study of the Boiling River Project, students learned about the different lenses through which Rosa and her peers approached their work. Rosa’s team included cartographers, artists, entomologists, chemists, botanists, and more. We thought, What if we looked at our own local system—the Teton River—through similar lenses? The students were able to choose if they wanted to be a scientist studying a specific topic or help with science communication through cartography, art, or journalism. In addition to practicing a range of skills, students learned about the interconnectedness that exists in nature—between, for example, microorganisms, water quality, and animal life.

When turning attention to our own backyard, we needed to learn how to explore it properly. I’m not a microbiologist and had never used a microscope before this project. So, Rosa created videos for the class on how to study samples of lichen, algae, moss, sediment, and water. Essentially, Rosa taught us how to do the science. She taught us how important it is to get a pure sample. Then, Tricia and I created collection kits for every student and assigned each of them to go out and capture at least three samples to bring back to class. With the help of local university students, we looked at our samples under the microscope.

Rosa shows Sharee’s students how to prepare samples of algae for examination under a microscope.

A part of the Educator-Explorer Exchange is for Rosa to share her specialty with the classroom. It’s also an opportunity for me to help Rosa learn how to be an educator of younger students. One thing we worked on together was the power of allowing students to act, expecting them to act, and empowering them to act as stewards of their new knowledge. Learning about science and about our local area is nice—but it’s not magical until you do something with what you’ve learned. That’s where the power comes from. Authentic action not only speaks to the community; it also cements attitudes in students for the rest of their lives. Earlier this month, a handful of these students successfully petitioned our local City Council to support the class effort to protect the Teton River.

A handful of students from Sharee’s Educator-Explorer Exchange with Rosa present to the City Council of Rexburg, Idaho, on their class effort to raise awareness of and protect the Teton River.

Building a relationship with Rosa has helped these students develop their scientific skills and knowledge. It has also helped broaden their horizons. I teach in a very rural, small, homogeneous community. Rosa, a female scientist from another country, inspired students in more ways than one. She was and is such a role model for these students, especially for the girls in the classroom who often don’t identify with science as much as the boys. Now they do. The boys and girls alike are passionate, because Rosa showed them that being a scientist is not gender-specific. When she came to visit, she brought culturally significant items. She taught not only through her science lens but also through her culture and love of Peru.

This year, Rosa and I are continuing our collaboration by offering a summer science camp in June. After experiencing the positive impact that fieldwork and exploration has on students, I never want to teach any other way.

To bring the spirit of exploration to your own students, join Explorer Classroom—a live program that connects young people with National Geographic Explorers—to hear behind-the-scenes stories and interact with cutting-edge scientists, researchers, and powerful storytellers from around the globe. All events are free, open to the public, and include an instructional guide to help learners get the most out of the experience. Browse upcoming sessions here.

Sharee Barton is a district gifted and talented coordinator and has been a public educator for 33 years. She is a wife, mother, and grandmother to seven little budding explorers. Prior to participating in the Educator-Explorer Exchange, Sharee was a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow.

Featured image courtesy of Sharee Barton

3 thoughts on “24 Fourth Graders + a National Geographic Explorer = Magic

  1. What a wonderful journey of exploration and collaboration for all involved! 💛 🌎

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