Long-distance learning

As Newport Beach science teacher Jean-Paul Rimlinger put it, trapping voles and mice in Nova Scotia isn't typical professional development.

Nevertheless, that's where he was for a week at the end of March, helping a group of scientists track mammal populations in a square mile of Canadian forest.

Each day, he braved freezing temperatures to observe locations like a beaver lodge that were completely still one moment and active the next.

"Boom, a beaver popped its head out, looked around, assessed the situation and went about its business," he said.

For the Southern California native, some of his ecology lessons were suddenly much more real.

"It was like, 'Wow, I've only seen that at Disneyland," he said.

Each night, he wrote about what he saw on his blog and answered questions from his students back at Harbor Day School in Corona del Mar.

Through his writings and a Skype session, he hoped his experience living out the scientific process rather than just depending on accounts in books inspired his class.

"I think they picked up on how excited we were as adults at still learning how much there still is out there to see and discover," he said.

His volunteer trip with a group of scientists was organized through the Boston-based Earthwatch Institute.

The environmental nonprofit sends amateurs around the world to assist in field research.

At a fall 2011 fundraiser, the private Corona del Mar school raised enough money to send two teachers on these expeditions for each of the next five years, said Noelle Becker, the school's communications director.

Teachers write essays to compete for the opportunity.

Rimlinger and English teacher Susan Johnson were the first to win the chance.

In January, Johnson was a world away from Nova Scotia, watching leatherback sea turtles return to their nesting grounds in Costa Rica.

The endangered animals can weigh more than a ton, and they nest on beaches like the one Johnson combed.

On the sand in the pitch black of night, she searched for turtle tracks as large as a small SUV's, she said.

She counted the turtles' eggs as they dropped.

"I felt like I was watching evolution," she said. "This is such a prehistoric species. Certainly this whole instinctual notion of coming back to where this turtle was born and then the rhythmic and gracefulness the turtle was able to utilize in digging her chamber is amazing."

She has incorporated the turtles into her lectures through her blog and nonfiction readings for her students.

Her experience rippled through the school, with one art teacher assigning students to make ceramic leatherbacks.

That is the goal, Johnson and Rimlinger said, to make science and discovery come alive for students through technology and teachers' personal experiences.

"You can't send all the kids to Costa Rica," Becker said. "But you can send a teacher to transfer that knowledge and information."


Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck

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