Rob Ulmer: Preparing to Leave Home, May 13, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea
Robert Ulmer
(Not yet aboard) NOAA Ship Rainier
At sea from June 16 to July 3, 2013
(Still home in Gainesville, Florida, N 29 42 30, W 82 22 48)

Mission: Hydrographic survey
Geographical area of cruise: Along the coast of Alaska, from Juneau to Kodiak
Log date: May 12, 2013

Personal Log

For as long as I can remember, I have loved maps. A good map is an invitation to explore, to let the mind wander in distant lands, among unfamiliar environs, and into new challenges, but always with the advice of the explorers who walked there earlier. Imagine being the first person to cross a dense bit of jungle or a vast glacier, to find an underground passageway of ancient caves, or to walk on the surface of some planet. Certainly, you or other people might have created speculative pictures in your head before your journey, hypotheses about what you might find. But those hypotheses must be tested, verified, investigated. The explorer bravely takes the advice of others, the creative ideas that grow from his own previous experiences and imaginings, and whatever other tools fit into his kit, and he walks forward.

That is what we humans are. Explorers.

Checking the trail map and USGS marker on Pine Mountain

Checking the trail map and USGS marker on Pine Mountain

Even young children are scientists. Starting from very little background knowledge, they do that most human of activities: They wonder. Uninhibited by the social structures of the adult world, they spend nearly all of their waking moments drawing new maps in their heads. Maps of the paths of beetles crossing the yard, maps of the grocery store aisles, maps of best hiding places on the playground or in the house… but not only geographic maps. They also “draw maps” of how to talk Mom into an extra snack, how to fill the bathtub with bubbly water, and how to put on a shirt.

Two routes from Amelia Island to Big Talbot Island

Two routes from Amelia Island to Big Talbot Island

When Euclid wrote Book 1 of his Elements, he laid down a road map of proofs so that others could confidently follow him to the Pythagorean Theorem. When Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright Brothers made drawings of their flying machines, they were mapping the paths that they had trod toward liberating humans from the clutches of Earth’s gravity. And when Grandpa wrote the recipe for his excellent gumbo, he, too, was a cartographer, taking notes about how he had done the work so that others might learn from it and, maybe, expand it into something more meaningful and delicious in their own lives.

The land and surrounding waters of Alaska have captivated humans for many ages. The majesty of the advancing and receding glaciers as they slowly carve valleys amid the mountains, the freedom of the soaring flights of eagles as they look down upon the rarely-visible orcas and belugas, the mystic palette of icy blues and whites against the vernal greens and floral splashes… People travel to, through, along, and across Alaska for commerce, for sightseeing, for escape, and for investigation, and the maps of those who have gone before them make those passages easier and more interesting, both by providing guideposts and by leaving other details to be explored by the new travelers with their own curiosities and motivations.

When I join CDR Rick Brennan (who is both the Commanding Officer and the Chief Science Officer of the ship), Executive Officer Holly Jablonski, and the rest of the crew of NOAA Ship Rainier in a few weeks, I will be learning how skilled scientists continue the grand tradition of mapmaking, using modern equipment to plumb the depths and chart the coasts from Juneau to Kodiak, updating the notes made by previous explorers so that the next travelers will have the confidence of our data before they add their own interesting pieces to their own maps. By participating actively in the expedition, I will be mapping new territory for my students and myself, too, as I gain first-hand evidence of how scientists in the field conduct the business of their science. Remember that more than two-thirds of Earth’s surface is covered with water, and we have more than 100 miles of atmosphere above our heads, and yet we’ve barely begun to explore those regions of our own home world. That makes the work and leadership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration even more important because they are pioneers at this early stage in human exploration of those parts of our planet.

Rock climbing with the family in the hills of Georgia

Rock climbing with the family in the hills of Georgia

Don’t you wonder what it might have been like to hang out with Galileo as he peered through his telescope, to sit next to Beethoven as he composed and edited a symphony, or even to watch the patient musings of Mendel as he gardened peas season after season? I do. It’s difficult to remember what it felt like to be a young explorer, unburdened by almost any preconceptions. But exploration is always available if we are willing to open our eyes and minds, and to get our hands dirty while investigating our own surroundings.

Learning by investigation on the shore of Jekyll Island

Learning by investigation on the shore of Jekyll Island

And when I return to my 8th-grade classroom in tiny land-locked Lake Butler, Florida, at Lake Butler Middle School,  I’ll be able to share my own first-hand experiences and explorations aboard Rainier. I look forward to feeling the excitement bubble from inside me to capture the curiosities of my kids, as I act out the launching of depth-finding devices, display real data from my cruise, and share stories, notes, pictures, and videos to help them see and smell and hear what I witnessed. I look forward to my students’ questions after I return as much as I am excited about my own questions now. And I know that I won’t be able to answer all of those questions, but that’s the beauty of exploration: The students’ own wonderings will lead them to continue the explorations themselves, to enhance the maps with new notes, new details, and new points of interest.

Expedition boat about to visit the corals reef off Summerland Key from Mote Marine/NOAA Lab

Expedition boat about to visit the corals reef off Summerland Key from Mote Marine/NOAA Lab

View southeastward from Mote Marine Lab in Summerland Key, Florida

View southeastward from Mote Marine Lab in Summerland Key, Florida

Teachers always are motivating their students to dig in, to investigate, to think for themselves and take chances with new and creative ideas. Of course, my students read to learn what others before them have discovered, but they learn in other and sometimes more meaningful ways by designing and building their own rockets, by lifting heavy weights with different sets of pulleys, and by constructing legitimate scale models of their home solar system. As a teacher, I have great influence over the young people in my care, and so I also must explore so that my students can trust my insistence that learning by active engagement is necessary and a real commitment for life-long learning. By leaving the comfort of my home to conduct hydrographic surveys along the coast of Alaska with the crew of Rainier, I hope to model that commitment.

Students building models at Kennedy Space Center

Students building models at Kennedy Space Center

A last note: There’s something very poetic and temporal about starting my cruise at Juneau and ending it at Kodiak. Juneau is the capital of the state of Alaska, and Kodiak was the regional capital when Alaska was Russian territory. Moreover, regardless of the political boundaries, people of different tribes and nations have lived in the region since long before either country formally existed. Maybe what I’m saying is that the maps always will be re-drawn based on what people want to see in those maps. In some ways, people are just like people always have been, and in other ways they change. So does the land, so does the sea. And so I end this first blog where I started it, by respecting the role of the mapmaker as a trailblazer, a note-taker, a guide, and an explorer.

Keep exploring, my friends. And follow my blog here to travel with me and see where my explorations go next. Thanks for reading.