The online magazine Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears seeks to address Americans’ lack of knowledge about the Earth’s polar regions by providing elementary school teachers with tools to teach about these cold, wild places in a fun, interactive way that combines science with literacy, mathematics, art and social studies.
“As part of the International Polar Year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was looking for proposals designed to enhance our understanding of the Earth’s polar regions,” says Jessica Fries-Gaither, the project director for Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears. “ Kim Lightle [the director of Digital Libraries in the College of Education and Human Ecology at the Ohio State University] decided to try to secure some of this funding to help develop curricula for elementary school teachers to use to educate their students about polar science.
“She received funding for a 20-issue online magazine, and I was hired to be the project director, which equates to being the editor-in-chief for a paper magazine. I did everything from writing articles to overseeing layout and working with contributors.”
International Polar Year Project
Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears was just one of more than 200 projects that came out of the International Polar Year (IPY), which ran from March 2007 to March 2009. The effort, organized through the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization, brought together efforts from thousands of scientists representing more than 60 countries and was the fourth IPY to be held following celebrations in 1882-83, 1932-33, and 1957-58.
Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears was produced at Ohio State University but relies heavily on the findings of NFS-supported scientific research in both the Arctic and Antarctica.
From the classroom to the edit room
Fries-Gaither was a schoolteacher in Anchorage before she came to work for Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears. She said living in Alaska meant she knew something about the Arctic, but her own knowledge was limited. How limited she did not realize until she delved into the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears project.
“I knew better than to misplace penguins, but I honestly didn’t know a lot. It was wonderful to have three years to explore the subject,” she said. “There is so much amazing science going on and exciting stuff to do with children to help them understand it.”
Discovering a new world
She said she remembered the sense of wonder and excitement she felt as she began to understand the immense scale of things in the Arctic and Antarctica.
“I’m awed to think about icebergs the size of states floating around on the ocean,” she said. “And the fact that some of the melt ponds on the Greenland ice sheet can drain in a matter of days in rushes of water that are comparable to Niagara Falls. It’s just amazing."
Inspiring elementary students
“My hope is that through Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, schoolchildren will experience this same kind of wonder and awe as they learn more about our incredible planet,” Fries-Gaither said.
The website is vast, linking together original articles and curriculum guidelines with activities, links to online resources, photography, podcasts, reading lists, videos, and a blog for the exchange of ideas and feedback. The site also includes a matrix illustrating how the magazine’s curriculum can be used to support National Science Education Standards.
“Teachers are pretty bound by state regulations and national standards,” Fries-Gaither said. “We wanted to make sure the magazine wasn’t just an add on—that it also brought value to the classroom experience and reinforced educational standards. We wanted to provide teachers with something fun they could do with their students while still supporting the basic concepts we knew they had to teach.”
An example of the magazine’s diverse approach is the unit on oceans. One activity involves creating a life-sized mural of an ocean habitat and its inhabitants to help children understand what lies beneath the sea. Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears suggests different ways to accomplish this task, such as taking the kids outside and letting them draw with chalk on the playground so they can create a life-sized blue whale or having them paint a scaled rendition of their ocean scene on sheets of butcher paper that can be mounted on the classroom walls.
Sounds straightforward enough, but as you delve into Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears’ plan for the unit, you begin to find all sorts of hidden topics that can be addressed through the exercise. Teachers can explore the mathematical concept of scale; they can talk about underwater environments and habitats, or oceanic currents and the life they support; and the children get to explore their artistic creativity as well as develop social skills by working together as a team to complete the project.
From reading to action
Fries-Gaither and the contributors to Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears have taken the broad topic of the Arctic and Antarctica and used it as a jumping off point to explore a wide variety of subjects in a way that integrates the work of countless scientists, artists, writers, and educators. The resulting online magazine feels like an intricate web, which is both its strength and its weakness. It’s easy to get pulled off in one direction—from the aurora to painting to Impressionism to the use of complementary colors for example—and find yourself a bit lost from the original intent of the article and a long way from the Earth’s polar regions.
“If I were to do this over again,” Fries-Gaither said, “I might have pared back the amount of content we included. An online magazine is different from a print magazine. It can be easy to get lost as you move from page to page. We’re working with a graphic designer now to create a printable version of each issue of the magazine. We think it will be easier for teachers to flip through a real magazine—or at least a virtual magazine—to find something they can use and to get a sense of each unit as a whole. This magazine version will not contain everything we have on the website, but teachers can then go back online to get more details.”
The production team worked with a group of teachers during the website construction stage to get a sense of what was working and what was not, and to provide evaluations on how the curriculum affected their students.
Inspired students are good learners
“The two most noteworthy things I took from the feedback were that teachers were more likely to have students write about science after working with Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, and that third graders, in particular, were more likely to say they were good at science and to believe writing was important to science after going through our activities.”
A broad audience
Since the launching of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears in March 2008, the site has had more than 700,000 page views, with the monthly average falling between 20,000-30,000. October 2010 saw a sharp increase with close to 37,000 page views, something Fries-Gaither hopes indicates a growing audience rather than a one-month blip. She also says they have had a lot of positive feedback through the website’s blog and through personal conversations with teachers.
Embraced by teachers
For example, Erica Parker, a fourth grade teacher from Lander, Wyoming, said she was eager to experiment with using Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears in her classroom.
"Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears is an incredible resource for teachers and one I will share with my colleagues. One thing that I'm beginning to see happen in elementary education is a push for expanded reading time by limiting or eliminating science and social studies curriculum. As educators many of us find this disheartening; science and social studies both provide real world reading for students. So, I was excited to see a focus on science and literacy on the site," she said.
For those who are not immersed in polar field sciences, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears is a great place to learn more. The website provides a wealth of fun facts, beautiful photography, videos, information and activities. For those who are intimately familiar with the subject, the website demonstrates a creative way to explore the world’s cold regions with kids, which can be a useful tool for helping your family and friends understand the allure of polar science and the strange addictive attraction the great, white empty spaces at the Earth’s poles seem to have for so many scientists, explorers, artists, writers, and people who just love wild, harsh and beautiful places. -Molly Absolon