Teachers’ field trip: Lessons from the Mendenhall Glacier

Thirteen educators participated in Discovery Southeast’s Teacher Expedition on the Mendenhall Glacier. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Thirteen educators participated in Discovery Southeast’s Teacher Expedition on the Mendenhall Glacier. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“Teacher training” usually means spending time in a library with textbooks and PowerPoints. But for 13 Alaska educators last week, it meant hopping on a helicopter, donning crampons and toting an ice ax on top of the Mendenhall Glacier as part of Discovery Southeast’s Teacher Expedition. I was invited to tag along.

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From the Juneau airport, less than 10 minutes fly by before the helicopter lands on the ice of the Mendenhall Glacier.

Bev Levene, who works at the glacier’s visitor center, says she look at this glacier every day, “But now I’m actually seeing it, touching it, being on it, and it’s really cool and kind of surreal in a way.”

(Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
(Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The glacier expedition is just one of several teacher trips that Discovery Southeast offers in the summer. Teachers pay tuition to learn in an outdoor classroom for a week and can get continuing education credits from the University of Alaska Southeast.

Richard Carstensen is one of the founders of the outdoor education nonprofit and an instructor.

“This is our backyard in Juneau,” Carstensen says. “And they’re going to bring this back to their classes, even if they can’t actually the walk the kids around on the ice. It’s going to just give them a much more full body understanding of what this glacier is doing.”

Cathy Connor is a retired geology professor at University of Alaska Southeast and another expedition instructor.

Teachers were outfitted with crampons, helmets and ice axes. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Teachers were outfitted with crampons, helmets and ice axes. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“If you teach teachers, you teach the world. If you just teach kids, that’s just a flash in the pan. They’re the parade moving, but teachers are your pivot point. They’re the railway station that all the trains come through,” Connor says.

During the expedition, teachers were supposed to spend three days on the Juneau Icefield. Due to weather, ice time was limited to the day on the Mendenhall Glacier. Matt Potter says the days spent off the ice were just as rewarding. Potter is in the process of moving from Anchorage to Circle, where he’ll be the lead teacher.

“We hiked up somewhere and there was this gravel pile and we had a bunch of 5-gallon buckets and we dumped water down it just to look at what the effect of concentrated run off is, how it sorts out the rocks from the gravel from the silt,” Potter says. “It was a really good hands-on activity to show in real time the processes of erosion. That’s something that no matter how old you are, you’re going to have fun dumping water down a hill, right?”

(Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
(Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

But it’s the glacier that draws the most awe.

“There’s just nowhere else on Earth like this,” says Allie Smith, a teacher at Juneau’s Auke Bay Elementary School.

“And the one thing that I’m so amazed with today is watching all the melt streams on the surface of the glacier. I always knew there was melting but there’s just a lot more channels and dynamics to see up here than I realized,” she says.

Throughout the day, the instructors pose this question to the group of teachers:

“Do you guys have any ideas on what you might take to your classrooms about the process that’s happening out here?”

Discovery Southeast Naturalist Steve Merli drops the orange. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Discovery Southeast Naturalist Steve Merli drops the orange. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The teachers have some ideas, like using algebra to predict snow accumulation and ablation cycles, nature walks in areas where the glacier once was, experiments that model how ice carves away at cliff sides. But they have weeks before school starts, so while they’re on the glacier, they might as well goof off for a few minutes.

Palmer teacher Nicolas Owens stands over a small glacial river.

“It’s a very technical thing we’re doing here. We’re going to drop the orange in. We should probably measure something off or eyeball a measurement and then we’re going to calculate how fast the water’s flowing,” Owens says.

“On your mark, get set, go.” The orange is dropped into the flowing glacial water.

“Oh no,” Owens says, as someone laughs. “It’s in the eddy,” he says. “The orange is stuck in the eddy.”