Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Teacher Ron Witter on the "Discovery" of Interconnection

Ron Witter’s first exposure to Adventuress was during a day sail designed to introduce teachers to the educational programming that takes place aboard the ship. A fifth-grade teacher at Discovery Elementary in Gig Harbor, Ron was quickly sold on the idea of bringing his class out on the water: “I immediately thought, This is something that I need to share with my students.”

Ron proved to be a winning advocate; fifth graders from Discovery stepped aboard Adventuress this September for the fourth straight year. For Ron, one of the great values of Adventuress is the way in which shipboard learning clarifies and connects with classroom curriculum. Says Ron, “Adventuress provides a platform that helps students truly understand the concepts that we teach.”

Students learn about the pH scale in the deck house.
As an example, Ron mentions a lesson on Ocean Acidification in which students test the pH of Puget Sound water and then add carbon dioxide by blowing into the water with a straw. Following the addition of carbon dioxide, the test shows a more acidic pH—a microcosm of what is happening to the world’s oceans as they absorb an unprecedented amount of human-generated greenhouse gases. Not only does this tie into the “Earth and Human Activity” aspect of Next Generation Science Standards, but it also makes the base concept of pH visible and relatable to students. Says Ron, “With the Ocean Acidification lesson, I think they finally gain an understanding of what pH really means.”

Curriculum at Discovery Elementary also centers around the concepts discussed in the best-selling book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” The sixth habit, “Synergize,” teaches that positive teamwork allows people to combine their strengths, making goals achievable that would not have been possible otherwise. Certainly this is true of Adventuress; no single person—no matter their skill as a mariner—could sail Adventuress alone. Says Ron, “When our students come aboard Adventuress, they look at the crew and they see a representation of leadership and working together.”

When students from Discovery step aboard Adventuress, they are also reading about Theodore Roosevelt, who served as president around the time of Adventuress’ maiden voyage to the Arctic (Roosevelt was president from 1901-1909; Adventuress made the journey shortly after her 1913 launch). As they read about Roosevelt’s efforts in the early twentieth century to establish more National Parks, they have an incredible opportunity: the chance to step aboard a vessel that originated in the Roosevelt era while they learn about preservation from a twenty-first century perspective. Ron explains that this type of synergy has a powerful effect: “With the trip on Adventuress, and with the curriculum in the classroom, students experience an awakening of consciousness about the environment.”

An example of the visual map that the Program Coordinator
created with students from Discovery Elementary.
Reflecting on this year’s trip, Ron describes a powerful moment in which students grasped the interconnection of the curricula. Towards the end of the sail, the Program Coordinator gathered students together in the main cabin and used a whiteboard to draw a visual map of all the concepts that students had learned about during their three hours on Adventuress: Marine Life, Life Aboard the Ship, Ocean Acidification, Plankton, and Nautical Skills. Recalls Ron, “All of a sudden, one of the students said, ‘Oh my gosh, these ideas make a great big web.’ She finally understood how all of these pieces fit together and how cooperation and teamwork enable us to help the environment and Puget Sound.”

Coming from Gig Harbor, Ron is deeply aware that he lives in an exceptional place. Still, he says, many students haven’t had the chance to build a connection with the environment around them: “It’s unbelievable to me how many kids haven’t been out on the water. A lot of times Adventuress is their first experience… When kids come back to visit after they’ve left Discovery, they still ask if we sail on Adventuress. It’s important to them to continue this tradition.”

Keeping the tradition alive is important to Ron, as well. Summing up the difference that Adventuress makes, he says, “Kids learn through experience. Some of the most vivid and meaningful learning happens outside of the classroom… There aren’t many places on Earth that have a resource as powerful as Adventuress. I am truly grateful that my students can have this opportunity.”