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Mira Costa Teacher Returns from Antarctica Expedition

Feb 25, 2023 04:01PM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Photo credit: Justin Moodie

Mira Costa media arts teacher Michael Hernandez, a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, has returned from an epic expedition to Antarctica with other teaching fellows.

Hernandez was selected for the program in 2021, one of only 50 teachers in the United States and Canada to receive the honor. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and the National Geographic Society. The program brings educators aboard one of Lindblad Expeditions’ voyages, and the educators then transfer their onboard experience into new ways to teach students and engage colleagues. Hernandez and two of the other Grosvenor fellows went on an expedition to Antarctica that returned last week.

Below are excerpts from MB News' conversation with Hernandez after he returned.

MB News: Why did you choose Antarctica for your expedition?

MH: The program has expeditions all over the world. They asked us which place we wanted to go. My preference was to go as far away as I could to the most extreme conditions possible, because - why not? I love an adventure and I wanted to push myself physically and emotionally. I definitely was pushed to my extremes.

MB News: What was the travel like to get there?

MH: We flew down to Buenos Aires, then we flew down to a city in Argentina called Ushuaia - the southern most city in the world. That's where we boarded the ship - the National Geographic Explorer. And from there we sailed 500 miles across the Drake Passage to the peninsula of Antarctica. That took about two days.

Photo credit: Justin Moodie

The Drake passage is where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. Typically the water conditions are very rough, but when we were there the waves were not so bad; we only had 2-3 meter swells. In December a friend of mine who went had 8-meter swells. You sail along and then one day, the islands start appearing, and your ship just starts maneuvering around these beautiful islands.

MB News: How cold was it?

MH: January is summer in Antarctica, but it is still cold. [January temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula typically reach a high of only 36 degrees F.] We had to outfit ourselves with special cold-weather gear for the expedition. Also it was light outside for many hours. One of the other teachers and I would get up at 3:45 a.m. and go out to the deck to take photos of the sunrise, which would happen at about 4:30 a.m.

MB News: So what was a typical day like on the expedition?

MH: The ship would navigate to a location, and then we’d have morning and afternoon excursions. We would board Zodiacs (rigid inflatable boats), and drive out through the water. We visited penguin colonies, and drove past seals, humpback whales, and pods of orcas. The drivers of the boats were all naturalists with different specialties, like a marine biologist, an expert in sea birds, an expert in the history of Antarctica, and so on. As we were riding in the boats, the guides would explain what we were seeing. Then in different places we would get out and walk around, or sometimes do a short hike.

Photo credit: Justin Moodie

After the morning expedition, we would have lunch, then a presentation, then an afternoon excursion, then dinner. In the evenings we would have briefings recapping the day, giving more information, and sharing facts about where we were. At night, the ship would move to the next location.

The guests on the ship - there were about 100 of them - were from all around the world. Only three of us on the ship were Grosvenor Fellows. One of the requirements for the Grosvenor Fellows was to give a presentation on one of the afternoons, so I got an opportunity to speak to the passengers about what I do, and share what I do at Mira Costa. 

MB News: So there were people who went down to Antarctica...and learned about MIra Costa?

MH: That's right!

MB News: What kinds of things did you tell them about? 

MH: The question always seems to be, what is this media arts teacher doing working with National Geographic? This should be for science or geography teachers, right? And yes, there are some science teachers, social studies teachers, and so on in the program, but a really important piece of the National Geographic mission is storytelling. We’re all familiar with storytelling through the magazine. I remember as a kid we had National Geographic magazine on the coffee table. When the new issue came, I was always fascinated with the cover image. You open it up, it takes you to this exotic location, or you see these crazy animals...It was so engaging and it really sparked my interest and curiosity. It just goes to show you that you need more than just raw facts and data; you have to communicate that in ways that are engaging. And that's what I teach in my classes: how to create an engaging story to help people understand ideas and information. The world is a curious and amazing and fascinating place, and we should do whatever it takes to ignite curiosity in our students. We need to understand our place in the world, how amazing and wondrous it is, and also how small we are in the span of time, and the scope of the universe.

MB News: What are some interesting facts that you brought back about Antarctica?

MH: One of the things that was fascinating about Antarctica is that it's the coldest, windiest, driest continent. It gets less precipitation than the Sahara Desert. Also it is the tallest continent - averaging over 2000 meters high with its mountain ranges.

There is an international agreement that no one country "owns" Antarctica, but all countries may use it for research. Winters in Antarctica are brutal, though. It once recorded the coldest temperature on Earth at -94 Celsius. People at research stations go through psychological testing and evaluation before they are stationed there.

MB News: How can an expedition like this help you in terms of professional development?

MH: I feel like what was so great about this expedition was that the learning happened off campus, in the real world. In fact, the best learning happens when you’re engaged with the world - in this case the natural world - because you make personal connections to the subject matter. There’s actually psychological research that backs that up. If someone asks you. "What was your most positive memory of school?" you'd probably remember a time when you did something out of the norm. During the pandemic it was kind of a blur because we were all in one place all the time.

Hernandez and colleagues "eat" a piece of glacial ice. L-R: Hernandez, Gabriel Santos, Justin Moodie (both Lindblad/National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellows). Photo via National Geographic photographer Susan Seubert.

I try to find ways to make the classes that I teach experiential in some way. It’s the immersion that really forces you to become engaged. You make those personal connections to the people and the places. It's the same with professional development for teaching. It could mean going to another city, eating new food, or just being surrounded by people who excited by a similar topic. So the energy that you get from the place and the people you meet elevates and amplifies the teaching and learning.

This expedition and fellowship is about understanding and protecting the natural world. So going off to someplace like Antarctica - it’s very literal - you feel the 1-degree wind on your face, you smell the penguin colonies, you hear the whales breathing, you feel the sway of the ship as it courses the Drake passage, it’s a visceral experience that really resonates.

MB News: Wait - what does a penguin colony smell like?

MH: You can smell it before you even see it. They eat a lot of krill, and then they stand around. That's about all I can say about that.

MB News: What will you do with what you've learned?

MH: Part of the expectation of the fellowship program is that we bring back media, photos and video, and also project plans. Folks have different ways that they choose to share their information. Right now I'm sharing stories on social media about facts that I've learned. I also recorded audio and did some interviews. My plan is to do a podcast miniseries about the experience. Also this summer I plan to put together photos and video and create a digital book.

I think the biggest lesson for my students is to see that their teacher is still learning - that we don’t stop learning when we graduate from high school or college, and that there’s just so much more to know. So it's modeling the idea of being a lifelong learner.

Also something that’s really important for me to let them know is that when you travel, it doesn’t mean you’re just 'tuning out' and going on vacation. Travel can and should also be about learning and engaging with the world. There’s so much more to the world than, say, going off to a resort that is walled off from the rest of the country. This shows the kids that it’s safe and its fun and it's exciting to leave the hotel.

MB News: What are some of your take-home thoughts as you're still processing all of this?

MH: It’s hard to find the words to describe the experience. When we were up close to the orcas, we could actually see and hear them breathing. One day I saw a glacier calve. It was truly a visceral experience that you can’t replicate in a video or in a textbook. It was also sort of a spiritual experience as well. I’m not a religious person, but it was a very humbling experience. It sounds hyperbolic - but when astronauts went into space and then had a chance to look back at the earth? I kind of feel like I had an experience equivalent to that.

MB News: And it seems like you brought some of that cold weather back with you.

MH: I'm wearing one of the sweaters I bought for the trip even as we speak.

Editor's note: To see more about Hernandez's trip, follow him at Changing the Narrative on Instagram. His podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts and on Spotify. Learn more about his Media Arts classes here.

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