Cold science

By Starla Pointer of the News-Register


One moved within a few feet of the National Geographic Explorer, the ship on which Larson and other science teachers were traveling through the icy waters, which took them within 600 miles of the North Pole. “The bear was curious,” the McMinnville High School teacher said, acknowledging the feeling was mutual.

The polar bear seemed to be just as interested in the ship and its passengers as the teachers were in the Arctic wildlife. As people clicked cameras from the deck, the bear checked them out, sniffing them before ambling off across the pack ice.

Just another day in Svalbard, the bear might have said if it could talk. Ice. Cameras. Scientists.

But for Larson, it was anything but. Getting an up-close look at polar bears in the wild was an awesome part of his fellowship with the acclaimed Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program.

The program is designed to give K-12 teachers first-hand experience in geographic awareness and ocean stewardship.

He was paired with several other fellows during the trip, including a bear and bee expert. “I brought the working-with-kids aspect” to the learning experience, he said.

He said he suspects he was chosen, at least in part, thanks to his work with the McMinnville Education Foundation on the district’s science experiences program for elementary students.

Larson teaches a variety of science courses at Mac High. The current lineup includes forensic science, forestry and advanced placement biology.

In the latter class, he will be using his Arctic trip as a springboard for teaching ecology, thereby passing on what he learned about geographic awareness and ocean stewardship.

Although he enjoys and values what he does, he didn’t plan to become a teacher.

He fell for fish as a child and spent happy hours fishing with an older cousin and his grandfather. In school, he enjoyed science, especially biology. Those interests led him to set his sights on a career as a fisheries biologist.

He started college at the University of California at Davis, then transferred to Linfield. Linfield didn’t have a fisheries biology curriculum, but it proved a much better fit for him otherwise.

“I knew the professors, they knew me,” he said. “It was awesome.”

Besides, he was interested in a girl from McMinnville, Mindy Legard.

After graduating in 1995, Larson went to work in the Oregon State University fish lab while he searched for other opportunities in fisheries. Then he and Mindy, now married, began to discuss the possibility of his joining her in the teaching field.

“I went and watched Chris Chennell teach,” Larson said, recalling the days he spent with the longtime science teacher, now retired. “Then I did my student teaching with him.”

Not long after Larson joined Mac High in 1998, Tony Vicknair, then assistant principal, was formulating the school’s new career pathways program. He noticed Larson’s background with fisheries biology, and chose him to start a program in that area.

Now his classroom includes large fish tanks, as well as a range of tools used in biological sciences and the specific courses he teaches: skulls and skeletons; fossils and models; birds’ nests; hardhats for the forestry program, body outlines for faux murder investigations in the forensics class; even a cat-toy size stuffed version of the E. coli bacteria.

Outsid,e there’s a small courtyard with a pond, small trees, native plants and other flora. Taped to his desk is a frequently posted sign, “At Rotary Park. Be back at end of period.”

To Larson, science is a core subject, as important as reading and math. It teaches key concepts that everyone needs as a citizen of the earth, a family wage earner and a critical thinker.

“Your understanding of science impacts how you interact with the world on a daily basis,” he said.

People can use scientific skills, such as interpreting graphs, to make all kinds of judgments — how much credence to give to claims printed in a voter’s pamphlet, for example.

And knowing how the earth works helps a person make choices such as which type of car to buy, whether to walk to work or whether to buy local products. That doesn’t mean everyone has to make the same choices, Larson said; rather, that they have the capacity to make an informed decision.

He said he wants his students to discover ways to care for the earth, its wildlife and oceans. They need to understand that humans always have an impact on the places they visit or the resources they use.

“When you leave, could someone tell if you’d been there or not?” he said he asks them, telling them their goal is to “be in the wild and not leave a trace.”

That’s something Larson and the other fellows kept in mind when they were exploring the land and ice of Svalbard. Not only did they want to protect fragile ecosystems, he said, but they also wanted to preserve the flora and fauna for future generations.

“We were always cognizant of being intruders in their space,” he said. “We didn’t get close enough to disturb them … we wanted to ensure we can experience this, and our kids can, and their kids can.”

They spent most of their trip on the Explorer, 3a 56-foot research ship.

The ship isn’t luxurious, he said. He bunked in the same type of quarters as the crew, a small, bare-bones cabin with a 12-inch porthole.

But even with minimal accommodations, the trip was ripe with opportunities for a teacher, he said. “No matter where you are, there are amazing things to see and bring back to show others,” he explained.

The ship was based at Longyearbyen, originally a coal-mining town that has reinvented itself as a tourist destination.

The city is the capital of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago at latitude 78 to 80 degrees north — northwest of mainland Norway and northeast of Greenland.

Glaciers cover parts of the islands. Despite the year-round chill, plants grow — lichen, purple saxifrage and other hardy flora that can survive the harsh conditions. Larson’s photos show some areas that are a vibrant green with plant life fertilized by the large flocks of seabirds.

There are no trees. Any wood used by Svalbard’s early residents washed in on the tide from locations as far away as the equator.

Today, lumber is shipped in. And wood still washes ashore from far flung places, Larson said.

So does beach trash, much of which carries labels that easily identify its origins — including fast food wrappers from all over the globe.

It’s a terrible thing to see, he said, but the photos he took of beach trash in Svalbard are a good learning tool: They help convince students about man’s impact on the environment.

“I tell kids, your trash here will get to the ocean,” he said. “It may end up on a beach in Svalbard or some other country, or it may become part of the permanent collection of garbage fouling the sea.”

Svalbard’s west side is touched by the warm West Spitsbergen Current, which keeps the coast free of ice. But to the north and east lie sea ice where polar bears live. That’s why the islands, once known as Spitsbergen, were renamed with a Norwegian term meaning “land of the white bear.”

In the year Larson visited, the ice had receded more than in most years.

It changes constantly. Larson said scientists look at the thickness and density of the ice over the long run, rather than its spread or decline from one year to the next.

For the bears, though, annual changes in pack ice make a big difference.

The low level in 2012 meant many polar bears were visible. While that was good for visitors, who wanted to capture them on camera, it was bad for the bears, which were forced into the open in search of food.

“They were starving,” Larson said.

That meant the observers had to be extra careful when they left the ship. Humans could look mighty tasty to hungry bears, he noted.

In addition to polar bears, Larson said, “We saw all kinds of amazing wildlife.” Many species of birds, including Arctic terns that resented the human intruders getting anywhere near their nests. Dolphins. Seals. Whales, including a blue whale who swam under and around the Explorer.

They saw reindeer, as well. Svalbard is the northernmost habitat for these mammals, and they look different here than they do at more temperate latitudes.

The arctic reindeer have adapted by developing shorter legs and more massive bodies. It helps them retain as much heat as possible.

They don’t need the long legs of reindeer found in warmer climates, Larson said, because they don’t have to depend on speed to escape predators on the ice.

While the reindeer, polar bears and other animals were all memorable, he said, a herd of walruses was noteworthy for another reason.

They are the smelliest creatures he’s ever encountered. “Their whole diet is shellfish,” he explained.

But the walruses didn’t give the human visitors a second glance — or even sniff. “They just did their thing,” he said.

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or