The transformative power of education lies not only in the knowledge gained within the classroom walls but also in the experiences that broaden young minds beyond their familiar surroundings. Such is the case for a group of 23 students from Polaris, a K-12 grade school in Anchorage, Alaska (U.S.). In May, these ambitious learners embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Bermuda, where they had the unique opportunity to visit the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. Over the course of 10 days, these curious young minds and their educators were immersed in a variety of interactive activities that took learning beyond the confines of their Alaskan classroom.
Polaris Academy is a lottery-entry magnet school serving grades from Kindergarten through 12th grade. The school believes learning for life happens when students are engaged and participate in authentic and meaningful experiences. Polaris offers various intensive programs for its elementary and secondary students to give them a novel opportunity to learn. This was the case for the 12th grade students who were given the opportunity to visit Bermuda to study marine organisms and the dynamics that affect them.
Andrea Evans, Polaris Academy biology teacher, who accompanied the students on their visit said, “Experiential learning impacts students so significantly. In a world where our climate, our oceans, and our ecosystems, global and local, are dramatically changing in front of us every day today’s students will be tomorrow’s problem solvers. We desperately need them to appreciate, value, and love biodiversity so they will seek to preserve what is left and cultivate practices that restore as much as possible what has been lost: particularly in our oceans as oceans are the lifeblood of our planet. The purpose of our trip was to better understand aspects and connections of the Bermudian marine ecosystem; and how that knowledge could be applied more broadly.” Andrea added, “There is a powerful force unleashed when young people resolve to make change”, a favorite quote of hers by Jane Goodall.
Polaris Takes Bermuda
Throughout their time, the group of young learners participated in lectures which enhanced the topics they were introduced to during excursions. The expedition began with a comprehensive introduction to Bermuda with Claire Fox, education officer, during which students were shown various specimens, including coral and bird skeletons. This initial lecture aimed to highlight the diverse habitats students would explore throughout the week, ranging from tidal areas and mangroves to rocky coastal zones and coral reefs. The students also had the opportunity in various lectures to learn about Bermuda’s rich coral and fish species gaining valuable insight into their behaviors and habitats and the fascinating world of plankton and their vital role in oxygen production and the marine food web. This immersive experience set the stage for the hands-on learning the students would encounter during their time in Bermuda.
The students not only engaged in lectures but also applied their newfound knowledge in real-life settings. Guided by experienced researchers and educators, they conducted fieldwork, collected samples, and participated in data analysis exercises.
The students had the opportunity to visit Cooper's Island Nature Reserve, where they were split into two groups. One group worked to remove invasive species, such as asparagus fern and Brazil pepper, while also planting bay grapes. This hands-on activity sparked discussions about the impact of invasive species and human activities on Bermuda's delicate ecosystem. The second group went on a historical walk with Alex Merkle, science education coordinator, where they learned about Cooper’s Island's role during World War II and its current significance as a NASA location.
The group visited the nature reserve for a second time where they took part in an eye-opening activity focused on microplastics, shedding light on the persistent issue of plastic pollution washing up on Bermuda's shores. The students actively participated in data collection and sorting samples, recognizing the time-consuming and repetitive nature of scientific research.
The students explored various locations such as south shore beaches where they discovered the unique sand dunes; Walsingham where they were exposed to mangroves and the vital role they play in preventing erosion. Additionally, at Spittal Pond, the students immersed themselves in bird watching at Bermuda's largest brackish pond. They encountered fascinating tidal invertebrates, such as periwinkles and chitons, while learning about the geological history of the rocks and paleosoles (soils representing former land surfaces) found in the area. Participants also visited Nonsuch Island, a trip which held tremendous importance as it showcased the efforts to restore the island to its pre-colonization state. Students witnessed the breeding grounds of longtails and cahows, observed cahow chicks and learned about the dedication required to raise them successfully. A snorkeling adventure near a sunken ship highlighted the significance of preserving native species and maintaining pristine environments.
This extraordinary trip to Bermuda not only offered the Polaris students a chance to explore the ocean first-hand but also fostered a deep appreciation for the importance of marine conservation. As the students returned to Alaska, they carried with them unforgettable memories and a wealth of knowledge. By stepping out of their comfort zones and immersing themselves in new environments, they have broadened their horizons while using teamwork and collaboration.
One student noted, “We visited a lot of places and had various lectures about the environment in Bermuda. If given the opportunity I would love to come back, I would like to be in the marine biology career field and this opportunity has given me an idea of what it will be like in that career.”
Lydia Schock, 18, added, “I enjoyed getting out of the classroom and the physical activities, we’ve been able to bond and spend time with our class which has helped us grow closer. The fish ID lecture has been my favorite especially getting to see the different beautiful colors of the fish. ”