Last April I stood on the Western Greenland Ice Sheet, studying glacial hydrology with a team of glaciologists as part of the PolarTREC Teacher Program. For me, a high school science teacher at Edward Little High School in Auburn, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. PolarTREC educators come from the United States and spend three to six weeks participating in hands-on field research experiences in the Arctic or Antarctica, working side by side with scientists. STEM at the Poles is professional development for educators across all science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines connecting them to the polar regions and the research community; developing Next Generation Science Standards resources, and changing how they teach the STEM curriculum in both informal and formal learning environments.

Erin Towns of Edward Little High School in Auburn studied glacial hydrology on the ice sheet in western Greenland, above, last April, in a program designed to change how educators from the United States teach the STEM curriculum. Photo via Caspar Haarløv, Into the Ice via AP

At the moment I am sitting on campus trying my best to work my way through homework relating to isotopic geochemistry and the rise of oxygen in Earth’s early atmosphere. I am on sabbatical from my 23-year teaching career studying Earth and climate science, interdisciplinary education and visual science communication in the School of Earth and Climate Sciences at the University of Maine.

Using what I learned through the professional development training and field experience in the Arctic, I started designing lessons and curricula that related to the polar regions for my classroom. I created an Arctic climate studies course that combined the disciplines of social studies, environmental science and visual arts. It is a large undertaking, trying to relate what was going on in the Arctic to Maine’s economy, coastal environment and politics in ways that are relevant, timely and meaningful for Maine students – and one of the best resources I had to help me with it was the Camden Conference.

The Camden Conference was founded in 1987 as a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization whose mission is to foster informed discourse on world issues. Each February the Camden Conference hosts a three-day conference on a topic of global concern. High school and college students from Maine, including mine, are active attendees in education programs related to the conference and at the conference itself, offering students a professional opportunity many have never had, and a lot of our student attendees are now enrolled in international relations, political science and environmental science college programs.

The conference also offers a professional development program for teachers, and the year I was preparing my students and myself to travel to Greenland, the conference theme could not have been more timely: “The Geopolitics of the Arctic: A Region in Peril.” The conference featured speakers including the former president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, along with academics who spoke about economic, political and social topics related to the region. Thanks to help I received in workshops, from colleagues, and through attending the Camden Conference, I was able to create an experience for students that was inclusive, authentic, engaging and fun. And last February over one thousand people, including 144 students, signed on to listen, learn and ask questions about the topic, “Europe – Challenged at Home and Abroad,” which turned out to be exceptionally timely, as Russia invaded Ukraine just a day before the conference opened.

This year’s topic, “Global Trade and Politics: Managing Turbulence,” looks again to be timely and relevant for study by Maine students who are being introduced to Maine’s increasing economic partnerships with Arctic countries which result in economic, political, social, environmental and national security opportunities and challenges.

The experiences my students and I have shared through the Camden Conference over the past 10 years bring a smile to my face. And as a result of work done, the University of Maine decided they wanted to help me further develop the Arctic climate studies curriculum I started as a part of Camden Conference and PolarTREC. I will return to my classroom in the spring, but now it is time to get back to my homework for class.

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