[This is the first of a three-part series on Jean Pennybrook’s award-winning research and her influence on project- and inquiry-based science education.]
“On a day like today, it’s hard to believe that Cape Royds, Antarctica is the center of a life and death conflict for an entire species. The blue expanse of cold sky meets the icy water, making it impossible to see where one begins and the other ends. White pads of ice dot the ocean, and a handful of Adélie penguins use them as springboards to catch their morning fill of krill or Antarctic Silverfish. Overhead, a predatory Skua circles, looking for a likely target. An Adélie comes up from the water with a large fish in its mouth – too big to be swallowed while swimming. The Skua sees its opportunity and snatches the morsel, making it that much harder for this Adélie to endure the Arctic cold.” — Adelie Penguin Diet, Penguin Science
Educator and researcher Jean Pennycook is using her unique opportunity studying the Adélies to inspire and educate children and adults around the world to actively participate in real-life science. Using her own research and technology, Pennycook elicits the curiosity and awe of even the most reticent science students.
Although it’s a far cry from her beginnings as a teacher in the Fresno Unified School District, Pennycook’s work in Antarctica is contributing to some of the most provocative climate research today. The Adélies are sea ice obligate penguins, which mean that they can’t survive without the natural ice formations found in Cape Royds. Pennycook and her associates have been studying the deterioration of these ice sheets, and the potential damage that humans could have to the future of this and other Antarctic species.
The research has earned Pennycook and her team international attention. Not only has their 17-year study been highlighted in such publications as Time for Kids (David Bjerklie, “A Night at the Penguin Rodeo“) and IEEE Spectrum (Glen Zorpette, “Antarctica: Life on the Ice (video)“), but it has earned her the Sierra Club Environmental Educator of the Year Award, the NSF Teachers Experience Antarctica Award, and inclusion as one of the key presenters for Climate Literacy at the upcoming NSTA 2015 Conference in Chicago.
Of course, in Antarctica, far away from Fresno, California, worldly accolades melt away for Pennycook. The only thing that matters is surviving the elements (in a tent, with no electricity or running water), living and working in isolation with the penguins (a job she considers to be nothing short of “a gift”), and her daily Skype calls with hundreds of students and adults where she gets to share her passion for Antarctic research and show them a world foreign and exotic, but within their reach.
Pennycook is crystal clear on her mission:
“I repackage the science for the world… My message is all about how these birds are coping with changes in the climate and how what we do in the Northern Hemisphere affects what happens in the Southern Hemisphere, and that protecting these birds, their habitat and their food source is very important.”
Pennycook’s work is not only inspiring, it’s very cool! But students are not the only ones learning from Pennycook’s project-based penguin science. As a Professional Development Specialist with IT’S ABOUT TIME®, she provides training for both seasoned and preservice teachers in project-based and inquiry-based scientific education methodology. At a time when teachers are struggling to cultivate a life-long love of science in their students, and are grappling with integrating the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), Pennycook helps teachers to embrace the new teaching methods that will transition science education into the 21st century.
“Teachers are having to reexamine what and how they teach, and I hope this is the time they’ll choose to teach in a very project-based and inquiry-based way. Once the kids get into a program like PBIS, they learn that science is interesting and fun.“
We had the pleasure of learning about Pennycook’s work and how she is influencing the next generation of scientists in an interview that made us want to jump on the next plane to the south pole to work with her and the Adélies! Enjoy the interview.
Interview with Jean Pennycook
Education Insider: Tell us a bit about your background as a teacher and about the penguin research you currently do in in Antarctica.
Jean: I have a career of 25 years of [teaching] high school science in the public schools in California. My degree, is in wildlife and fisheries biology. I have a master’s, as well, in science education.
I got my start doing the Antarctic research about 15 years ago through a National Science Foundation-funded project that took teachers out of the classroom and put them on research teams to do education and public outreach for the science. I did that 15 years ago, and I retired from the classroom. I now do EPO (Education Public Outreach) full-time.
I also now work at the university with preservice teachers, helping them to learn how to teach science and how to use current data sets from science research in their instruction with kids.
In other words, I repackage the science for the world. Mostly, I connect with classrooms to teach those communities, but I also connect with adult-learning groups around the world — mostly in the US or English-speaking countries. I have many groups that follow the penguins in other countries around the world.
My message is all about how these birds are coping with changes in the climate and how what we do in the Northern Hemisphere affects what happens in the Southern Hemisphere, and that protecting these birds, their habitat and their food source is very important.
Education Insider: How do you incorporate project-based learning into teaching kids about penguins in Antarctica?
Jean: When I teach kids about penguins — or about Antarctica, or climate change, or the oceans, or the food webs, or the ecosystems of Antarctica — the kids are presented with data sets from current science, not science from 100 years ago. But, rather, what we did just last year.
They get to analyze those data sets based on what they know. If they need to ask questions and find out something more, they can go and do that. They can analyze those numbers and come up with statements, if you will, or ideas about what’s happening based on the evidence of their data sets.
We’re also working with the seals. We have citizen science projects where kids count the seals using satellite pictures, and count penguins using the photographs we take. We have to do it ourselves. So we’re moving a lot towards getting kids involved in the actual taking of the data themselves.
When we give them problems to solve, we’re giving them the tools to solve those problems — like the photographs, the data, the observations, etc. These are real-world problems, the ones that the scientists wrestle with. So, it’s more relevant to their lives. It’s what’s happening today, right now, not 50 years ago.
Education Insider: How do you incorporate your real-world, current science into curriculum that might be a few years old? What curriculum do you use?
Jean: Well, every biological curriculum includes things like food webs, ecosystems, changes in the ecosystems, animal and plant adaptations to their habitat, and habitat change. So these are classic topics that occur throughout textbooks.
So what I do is just take those topics and relate them to what’s happening with the penguins, the seals, the whales, Antarctica, the ecosystem in Antarctica, the food web in Antarctica and the climate change. It’s not that these topics are new. It’s just that we’re making them more relevant, and making it all more interesting and dynamic by posing questions for the kids to solve, rather than just feeding them a lot of information.
Education Insider: What are you hearing from science teachers about the challenges they are having?
Jean: The biggest challenge that we see is the need for stories. Anybody can teach the vocabulary, and all textbooks are based on that, but teachers need the stories. For example, the penguins are coping with changes in their food source. What do they do? Where do they go? How does it affect them? So we have long-term data sets showing what they do, where they go, how it affects them, and how it affects the population dynamic. It’s weaving that story of what is occurring right now in the world to illustrate changes in the habitat, the food web, etc. These are not new concepts. We’re just wrapping the concepts in a story, which has interest and value and is timely and relevant to the students. That’s the challenge.
Education Insider: What’s the most important thing that you try to impart to preservice teachers that will help them to become successful science teachers?
Jean: My biggest message to them is to show the kids that this is something that they can do — that there are so many jobs out there, and many related jobs, not just being a research scientist. For every research scientist, there are probably ten support people. I’m one of those support people. There are technicians and different kinds of support work that’s wonderful, exciting, well-paid, interesting, dynamic, let’s you travel — all of these terrific jobs are out there!
The career paths in the STEM fields are way more diverse than kids realize. They don’t have exposure to it. So my message to the teachers is to expose your kids to these possibilities as careers, and then show them what these people do. What they do is science, the process of science, working with the tools, looking at these problems and answering those questions based on gathering some data.
The kids can get their own data. It’s not that hard. They can use data sets from NOAA, NASA, NSF, or any of these entities. If the kids get used to that and see that this is not that hard, and that it’s fun, then maybe they’ll select these [career] pathways. We have a serious problem with kids not selecting the STEM pathways as they go into college and beyond. We need to encourage that.
Education Insider: Are the Next Generation Science Standards helping to move the needle in the right direction? Are you seeing the positive affects of NGSS on teachers and students?
Jean: The NGSS only came out a couple of years ago. So we have not seen a huge shift in the teaching quite yet. We’re still about a year away from having some major changes—although I think most teachers know about it—but they haven’t changed their practices yet. The standards are providing a structure, if you will, that will unify and encourage teachers to teach in a different way because the standards are all performance expectations. So they’re all performance-based. The kids are going to have to do something to show their knowledge.
Teachers are going to have to teach them how to do that, so that they can pass the test (so to speak). This will be on a national basis (although not all states have adopted the NGSS). So this is giving structure, and it is kind of a shake-up. Teachers are having to reexamine what and how they teach, and I hope this is the time that they will choose to teach in a very project-based and inquiry-based way.
Education Insider: Why do kids continue to struggle so much with science?
Jean: I think we are not teaching them how much fun science is. In fact, many teachers turn kids off to science and math because they, themselves, have math and science phobia. Particularly many teachers in the elementary schools either did not do well, or did not even take science or math. Therefore, they’re shaky themselves. They then pass on that phobia, that anxiety, to the kids. Then the kids can’t recover once they get to the upper grades. They just shut down.
Education Insider: How, then, do we make STEM stick with kids today so that they carry a love of science with them throughout schooling into adulthood?
Jean: It’s the different approach to teaching. Once the kids get into a program like PBIS, the kids then learn or relearn that science is interesting and fun. It’s not hard. It’s not just formulas and vocabulary (learning 50 new words every chapter). Obviously, we’re looking to develop academic vocabulary. That’s very important. But we learn that vocabulary in context.
There’s never a vocabulary test. You learn the vocabulary as you go along. We’re not testing your vocabulary. We’re testing your process skills (whether or not you can process information, solve a problem, and analyze). So that’s the important skill to take forward in life, regardless of whether you’re a scientist. Lawyers need this. Politicians need this. Everybody needs analytical, critical thinking, problem-solving skills.
Education Insider: In what capacity do you work with IAT and how has that work helped you with teaching students and mentoring preservice teachers?
Jean: Well, way, way, way, back, when I was still in the classroom, I worked on IAT’s Active Chemistry® curriculum. I was the field test coordinator. I traveled the country helping teachers implement the curriculum. Since then, I’ve been a trainer for IAT and I’ve helped them with aligning their textbooks to the NGSS or state standards.
I work with the PBIS program and I help teachers [around the country] implement it. It’s a different way of teaching. So teachers have to see that it works, hear examples of how it works, and understand why it’s better [than traditional curricula]. So it’s a little bit different than my penguin work in Antarctica, but the two are related.
Education Insider: How important is it for teachers to get out of the classroom and into the field in order to become more effective science teachers? Would you suggest all STEM teachers do this?
Jean: I think it’s critical. The preservice teachers that I work with here in Fresno are people who already have their degree. They’re in their teacher training. The work that I do with them over the summer is research experience. These are based in a lab. Some of them go in the field, but most of them are lab-based experience. Many of them, most of them, say this is the first time they’ve actually done real science.
So it’s kind of a scary thing that these teachers are a year away from teaching kids science and they have no experience in the actual doing of science themselves. This project makes sure that these teachers have at least this minimum experience, which I think is critical. Otherwise, how can they translate that skill to students? I would think they would fall back into the cookbook kinds of activities. They call it the laboratory experiences, but they’re just cookbook activities. They let kids gather data. They let them manipulate tools. But when everybody is expected to come up with the exact same results (where there is a right and wrong answer), that is not science. Those are activities. Those are not experiments or real science. I think teachers are starting to learn to do more open-ended science. There is no right or wrong answer. You might have two different answers. Providing a statement and evidence to support your statement is the most critical thing that these kids can learn to do.
Education Insider: With regards to public outreach, what more should be done to help people to become more science-literate – and not just science-literate, but to have the same awe and excitement about science that we want children to have?
Jean: I think the citizen science component and explosion in citizen science projects is just a miracle, to me. It takes my breath away what is out there. There are all of these great websites. There’s something for everybody. NASA is measuring the craters on the moon. Cornell has all of the bird sighting ones like Bird in Backyards. They make migratory maps. Then there’s Project BudBursts, where people report when their plants bloom. They turn the data into interactive maps, so that people can see the results of what they’re doing.
There’s a ton of these citizen science teams, but one that we’re working on is having people count the seals around the edge of Antarctica, using satellite pictures. You’ve got big brown things on white. So you can actually see them. We have thousands of pictures, and we need people to count the seals and identify them. We’re working real hard on doing the same with the penguins. The penguins are a little bit harder, but we use photographs and let the kids count the penguins that way because we have thousands and thousands of penguins, and they’re hard to count. It’s very time-consuming.
We love to have people help us out with this. Those are just the two I’m developing myself, but I know that there are tons more out there. I think kids [and adults] get a real sense of being part of science when they get to do projects like that. It’s not just cheesy, little activities. This is adding to the database of bird sightings or bud bursts or robin eggs, or whatever the project is. There’s lots of them. More and more are coming. I think it’s fabulous!
Education Insider: This is, in a sense, big data, right? There’s so much data that needs to be logged, analyzed and interpreted. There’s so much to do.
Jean: Absolutely. And since everybody has a cell phone, they can take pictures and send in their pictures. It’s so much easier now. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t even imagine doing this kind of work. But now, we can. I wish I could start my career all over again. It’s so different now, and it’s so much better.
Education Insider: How does technology help you when you’re in Antarctica working with penguins and educating students? What are you using to communicate with the kids?
Jean: One of the funny stories I always tell is when I’m out with the penguins, we’re out with the penguin colony for about two and a half months. I live in a tent, and I don’t have any electricity, and I don’t have any running water. I can’t take a shower. I can’t wash my hair or wash my clothes. I have a two-burner gas stove (like a camp stove) and no fresh food. But, I have wireless Internet! I have an antenna outside the tent, which goes to the satellite, etc.
Education Insider: Most kids would say that wifi is all that matters!
Jean: It is amazing. I can take my tablet, and I can go and sit right next to the penguins and do a Skype call to classrooms anywhere in the world. I do four or five Skype calls every day. The kids each have a question, and they ask me the question. While they’re asking the questions, they’re watching the penguins and the chicks walk right by me, or come and play with my shoelaces, or sitting on their egg. Sometimes, the penguins come up to me and look right into the tablet because they’re very curious — the kids get to see all of that. I’ve only had wifi for the last two years. So it’s very cool.
Now, I did a webinar this year. We had 1700 classrooms log into the webinar, and that one was archived. But I wasn’t sitting with the penguins. The kids couldn’t come up and ask me questions because it was a one-way thing. Even though I don’t mind doing those webinars, it’s not the interaction with the individual kids that I prefer to do. I like it when the kids can see me, and I can see them, and I can say, “Hi, Johnny. What’s your question, Johnny?” I’m talking to them one-on-one. That’s how I prefer to do it. That just means I have to do more of it, which is fine. I don’t mind doing that. Then they get to see the penguins. That’s the big thing for me. They see me sitting in the penguin colony, right there with the birds. This is real time, and I really am in Antarctica. I think it puts Antarctica on the map for them because, otherwise, they have no sense of where it is.
Education Insider: Does it excite the kids and open their minds to the possibilities of pursuing careers in STEM?
Jean: Yes! I’ll ask them, “How many of you want to be a scientist?” They all raise their hands. That, if nothing else, encourages them to at least think about it. Oh, yeah. I think it’s such a wonderful field, and it’s interesting. Maybe they don’t want to go to Antarctica. It’s too cold. Maybe they don’t want to play with penguins. Maybe they want to work with dinosaurs or plants. It doesn’t matter. There are so many things to do. Exposing the kids to those options is a big job.
Education Insider: What do you love the most about being with the penguins in Antarctica?
Jean: I pinch myself every day and go, “What a gift that has been given to me to be here.” I take nothing for granted. It’s a huge gift. The magnitude of the space — there’s only two of us out there on the ice. The next closest person is 30 miles away. And, after that, the next closest person is 2,000 miles away. We have the research station 30 miles away but, after that, there’s nothing. It’s a vastness, emptiness. I look at the penguins, and I say, “Wow, you guys. This is a very harsh climate, and you’re the only ones here.” When they adapted to live in that harsh continent, they got the place to themselves.
It’s pretty incredible that these birds manage to find their way to Antarctica and survive there. Any two-month-old penguin is more capable of surviving in that environment than I am, even with all of the technology and equipment that I have.
It’s a sobering thought. If I go into that Antarctic water, I would be dead in five minutes. And yet, those birds thrive in it. So it’s remarkable just to be around these animals, live there with them, and then get to share it with the world.
Stay Tuned and Subscribe for More with Jean Pennybrook!
This exclusive interview with science maven Jean Pennycook is just the beginning. In our next segment, Pennycook shares details how she uses project-based curriculum to teach students about Arctic life! Don’t want to miss out? Subscribe to the blog (below) to get the news as it happens!
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