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Bringing the Antarctic into the classroom

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For the last 10 years, Ana Lucia Pallares-Weissling has been working with students in Boerne, Texas, and Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, to bring science and polar research into their classrooms. The doctoral student from the UTSA College of Education and Human Development's Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies began her work in 2007 while teaching in a bilingual classroom in the Boerne Independent School District.

She was inspired, she said, by an Antarctic expedition sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which her husband was a part of as a researcher and faculty member in the College of Sciences' Department of Geological Sciences. As educators, Pallares-Weissling and her husband took this opportunity to support science and education.

"What I did was request to my principal to transform my classroom into an icebreaker and virtually join the SIMBA Antarctic expedition. I asked for permission to teach like we were young scientists, incorporating polar research into all of the different content areas," said Pallares-Weissling. "One of the aspects that we incorporated was communication with scientists. Most of the scientists spoke English, so I used that element as an area to incorporate English into the classroom, and to support students with developing content and language in a dual-language setting."

The students would write emails to the scientists on the expedition and connect with them in real-time through webinars. The students were also given specific roles like the scientists on board the icebreaker during the expedition.

"In class, each student was assigned the role of a scientist, which varied according to what they wanted to focus on," said Pallares-Weissling. "I worked with them in small groups and, as a class, adapting the information to the students" level in my multi-age class, we followed what the scientists used to do, such as conducting a daily meeting of the scientists, performing investigations, and following research processes to acquire knowledge and develop both languages."

"We worked through the whole year, and at the end of the year, with the support of the parents, we created an Antarctic Polar research exhibit in the school," added Pallares-Weissling.

That following school year, Pallares-Weissling reached out to educators at Grupo Escolar Simón Bolivar Briones, a primary and secondary school in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, and invited their fifth grade students to be part of her young scientist team through the National Science Foundation and Polar Trec teachers program.

"In 2009, both schools followed the Oden expedition, and at the end of the year, the students in Escuela Simón Bolivar prepared and presented their Young Scientist Community Conference at INECOL, an institute of ecology," said Pallares-Weissling. "The main goal was for us to support each other with academic and daily language. We wanted to share our culture and scientific knowledge. As educators and researchers, we also wanted to understand how to bring current research knowledge from scientists directly into the classroom."

In the years that followed, the students from Mexico replicated some of the activities done by the Texan students, like the science fair. Both groups of young scientists continued their communication with each other throughout the school year through webinars.

Three years later, in 2012, 12 students from the group in Mexico traveled to meet the 12 students from Boerne ISD. Together, these 24 students prepared and presented at the Texas Association for Bilingual Education Conference.

"The students were so excited for the experience and to come to the United States," said Pallares-Weissling.

Weissling began her studies as a doctoral student in Culture, Literacy, and Language, in 2009 and has been conducting research on science and academic language acquisition in bilingual and dual-language classrooms.

"My research looks at how students develop a scientific identity and connect to science," said Pallares-Weissling. "We know through research that there is a lack of development in scientific achievement, not only by minorities, but the population in general. One of the important aspects to me is finding ways to facilitate science experiential opportunities for students across the globe from an early age, and collaborating between institutions in the United States and Mexico is one step towards being able to support each other in education and as nations."

Following that vision, she continued to work with the same group of students in both countries, who most recently followed the 2017 PIPERS Antarctic expedition. The team of teachers and students created a blog, and the students from Grupo Escolar Simón Bolivar have been providing support to their school elementary English area end-of-the-year demonstration. They will present as young scientist guests and will lead experiment sessions with all students and parents.

As recognition for a decade of working with this same group of students, the UTSA Mexico Center and the College of Education and Human Development awarded Pallares-Weissling with a grant for research and have supported her on-going, bi-national project fostering science and the development of young scientists.

"We are celebrating our 10 year anniversary of work with the same group of students," she said. "Although some students have moved to different schools, they are still members and participating as part of this project, along with some students that joined latter. Most of the students are now seniors in high school."

This July, as part of the project's tenth anniversary, Weissling and the students from both countries that have been involved in the polar expeditions project, will host an inauguration ceremony in Mexico. The main part of the celebration will include a permanent exhibit in the Museo Interactivo de Xalapa, a science and technology museum, curated by the students from Grupo Escolar Simón Bolivar.

"For us, it is an amazing celebration and honor that these high school seniors are going to donate an exhibit to a first-class museum on our theme, which is of high global importance," said Pallares-Weissling. "Students living abroad and other children in the school are also being invited to write books that will be housed at the museum."

"I think one of the biggest parts of the celebration is to continue reconnecting to these students, to provide a foundation for them to move on into their future studies and lives, and keeping in touch to continue collaborating into the future."

This summer, Pallares-Weissling will also travel to Switzerland to present her research on the project at the Polar 2018 International Conference and continue to work on her dissertation. She hopes to graduate from UTSA this upcoming fall.

"I am very honored to be a student at UTSA," said Pallares-Weissling. "I started my relationship with UTSA as an instructor back in 1993, and I went back to teach, to create methods, strategies, and do my own research in the classroom. At this point in my life, I believe that if I can work with future teachers or those already in-service, indirectly, I can further benefit the field of education. UTSA has helped me do that."


UTSA College of Education and Human Development

Phone: 210-458-4370