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Teacher returns from Antarctica with lessons for students

January 12, 2019

SALEM, Va. (AP) — The middle school geography teacher plunged into the icy waters of the Weddell Sea off the coast of Antarctica. But in an extraordinary journey, it wasn’t her deepest dive.

Judith Painter, who teaches eighth-grade at Andrew Lewis Middle in Salem, was immersed in the frozen continent during winter break. She studied the majestic waters, climate and wildlife through a National Geographic fellowship program for teachers.

The polar plunge was an optional activity for voyagers. But it was one Painter couldn’t miss, despite the 20-degree weather. “My students will probably love the look on my face when they see the pictures taken after,” Painter said.

Painter has a trove of photographs she plans to share with her students. ...

Painter is one of 40 educators in the 2018 class of Grosvenor Teacher Fellows, a program that leads visits to the Antarctic area of the globe and the Galapagos Islands for the ultimate hands-on experience in professional development. National Geographic partners with Lindblad Expeditions to offer the program, named for a former chairman of the National Geographic Society.

In the lead up, she received training from National Geographic and read a dozen books on Antarctica. Friends and other educators offered more preparatory help. An engineering professor at Virginia Tech who had traveled to Antarctica with his wife lent Painter a pair of waterproof gloves.

She flew from the Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport to Atlanta, then two stops in Argentina. The expedition ship, the National Geographic Explorer, took Painter and about 200 other passengers, including the staff and crew, for a two-day trek starting Dec. 18.

The most memorable portion of the journey to and from Antarctica was undoubtedly traveling through the Drake Passage, Painter said. The stretch between Cape Horn in South America and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica can be a rough crossing, to put it mildly.

“Imagine you have the stomach flu,” said Painter. “Then someone takes you on a back country road around the mountains. You’re going up and down hills. At the same time, the car is being swung side to side like a swing set,” she said.

Most of the passengers were still reeling from the experience after arrival near a small Chilean research base, Painter said.

Then they gained their footing, and the real quest began. Painter spent much of her first day hiking, breathing in the cold, foggy air and listening to the falling sleet beating against the massive sheets of ice. The shoreline was rocky, Painter said, explaining that most of the peninsula is volcanic in origin.

She observed a penguin colony and a moss forest. A self-described penguin fanatic, Painter said she saw three different species of penguins within the first two days, including Adelie and chinstrap.

“As we wandered, we were allowed to go within 15 feet of the penguins, and sit down just to look,” she said. “We had a great time just sitting there in the snow.”

Painter’s experience also brought her within feet of massive underwater mammals. Fin whales, humpbacks, killer whales and even the rare false killer whale were all spotted from the ship, Painter said.

She saw leopard seals, crab eater seals — which don’t actually eat crabs — and Weddell seals that make noises similar to a computer chirp.

The expedition also included a look at the effect of climate change on the continent. Painter learned about the effects of melting ice firsthand, and how changes to the water’s salinity, and ocean currents, will have serious consequences for Antarctic life up and down the food chain.

Painter said she and others on board were able to conduct a small-scale study on another pressing issue affecting the continent: plastics contamination. Microplastics have been detected in water samples collected off the peninsula in several major studies.

Painter said she’s hoping to obtain a grant that would allow her and her students to attempt a similar experiment in the Roanoke Valley within the next two years. It’s one of several instructional ideas Painter will bring back with her into the classroom.

Improving her ability to teach was Painter’s mission from the get-go. It’s the reason why she and the other teachers are selected for the fellowship, she said. The 26-year teaching veteran has drawn acclaim for her work as recently as this fall, when the Virginia Council for the Social Studies named her teacher of the year.

Painter said she’s still mulling exactly how she’ll incorporate her Antarctic experience in the classroom, though she’s already made progress. She knows there will be some common themes. She’ll pose questions. “How do we help protect these animals, these areas, in the peninsula? For some of these areas, we know it’s too late. The glaciers are going to fall,” she said. “But what are the lessons we can learn from this?”

Painter, a mother of three, said she keeps replaying the images of penguin parents protecting their chicks. “That was the common theme in everything we saw, the old protect the young,” she said. “That may be the theme I go with.”

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com

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