Lessons from an Arctic Lake


How one middle school teacher’s travel to Siberia and back influenced his curriculum and his life. The U.S. science team during the 2009 PolarTREC sediment coring expedition to Lake El’gygytgyn in Siberia. Pictured left to right: Dr. Julie Brigham-Grette, U. Mass, Addie Holland, U. Mass, Christina Brady -LaCore, University of Minnesota, Tim Martin, Polar TREC teacher, Greensboro Day School. Photo: Tim Martin, courtesy of ARCUS

From North Carolina to Siberia

When middle school earth science teacher Tim Martin joined a team of scientists on a 2009 PolarTREC expedition to the far northern reaches of Siberia, he hoped that the exotic experience would yield lessons that would be relevant to his students at Greensboro Day School. He would soon learn there are many similarities between lakes in his hometown and the frigid Arctic.

Martin had joined a sediment coring expedition to Lake El’gygytgyn (or Lake E) headed by Dr. Julie Brigham-Grette, University of Massachusetts Amherst. The team was there to procure sediment core samples and send them to labs all over the world for analysis.

Tim Martin and Roman Nafjrova processing a recently extracted core sample from Lake El'gygytgyn. Photo: Tim Martin, courtesy of ARCUS

Lake El'gygytgyn

Lake El’gygytgyn (also known as "Lake E") sits in a Siberian basin that was never covered in glaciers. Consequently, the lake’s sediment had collected and stored a continuous record of past Arctic conditions dating back 3.6 million years. The results of the sediment analysis have helped scientists understand how and why the earth’s climate changed in the past, and given them better tools for predicting the future.

For Martin, the experience was otherworldly, inspiring, and scalable to the kids in his middle school science class at a college prep school.

“I have to help my students engage using real data,” said Martin. “I hope to empower students to look at data and draw their own conclusions that are rooted in the scientific method.”

Teaching the scientific method

Students are often bombarded with cultural messages that might minimize scientific information, said Martin. Some students hear ideas from an early age that are in conflict with current scientific understanding. One of these is that humans could not possibly cause or contribute to global warming.

While he doesn’t aim to focus on the conflict, Martin does try to impart an important message: “If we want to know where the planet is going now, we must look at what happened in the past. The best way to do that is to find beautiful data sets that even a fourteen-year-old mind can understand.”

Exactly what constitutes a “beautiful data set?”

Martin and students at Greensboro Day School taking sediment cores in local sediment detention pond. Photo courtesy Tim Martin

“It’s something that is very convincing and very simple to understand,” Martin said. “It’s information on multiple graphs, where multiple data sets corroborate the same story. It tells you a clear story. There’s not a lot of variation. You don’t have to squint.”

Building blocks in school

Once he’s introduced students to the world of data and graphs, drawing heavily on the information gleaned from his PolarTREC experience at Lake El’gygytgyn, Martin then takes them coring in their own backyard where they collect and analyze sediments from a local pond.

“If a kid doesn’t know what an isotope is and I’m lecturing about isotopes, I might as well be speaking Greek,” said Martin. “But if I can take sediment samples with the kids and they can look at it with their own eyes under the microscope and see more fossil diatoms in one sample instead of another, they can draw their own reasonable conclusions.”

The experience also normalizes the concept of “science” and “fieldwork.”

“I want them to see the basic concepts behind this are not some foreign strange thing you have to go all the way around the world to experience, but that there is an environmental proxy record being built all over the place,” said Martin.

Once the students understand the method and can analyze the data, Martin introduces them to more complex information, specifically the evidence of increased carbon dioxide emissions and a warming planet.

“Climate change is something we all have to deal with and we spend so much time arguing about it as a culture,” he said

Teaching the teachers

Martin’s students aren’t the only ones benefitting from his PolarTREC experience. Since returning from Siberia, he’s given myriad talks on how best to teach earth science to kids. Dr. Brigham-Grette, the PI on the Lake El’gygytgyn project, has created a communications and outreach role for Martin for that specific research.

Martin’s network now includes colleagues who work around the world and who share his love of learning. He’s become an advocate to “help science teachers get involved in real science,” which is to say he’s working to create and foster opportunities where educators immerse themselves in the world they teach about.

Martin discussing lake sediment coring with Geoscience teacher workshop participants in Amherst MA. Photo: Erin Martin

Martin and Brigham-Grette have worked together to create geoscience teacher workshops at UMass to teach other teachers how apply these lessons and activities in their own classrooms. Additionally, Martin and several of the first workshop participants presented this work at the 2015 National Science Teachers Association annual conference in Chicago. To learn more about these programs, please contact juliebg@umass.edu.

“This strengthens your skills as a teacher,” said Martin. “The best science teachers I’ve seen are somehow involved in doing science outside of their classrooms.” —Rachel Walker