Springs School Teacher Lives For Research And Tangible Science


The face of science is changing for students at Springs School.

Scientists are no longer just men in white lab coats holding beakers. A scientist can also be a women in an orange jacket on a ship way out in the arctic or a student scuba diver learning about air pressure, thanks to the audacious Springs School science teacher, Lisa Seff.

Ms. Seff has gone to extremes, literally, to make science real to her students.

In 2012, Ms. Seff took her eighth-graders to the Hampton Dive Center in Riverhead to learn firsthand about gas laws that govern the relationships among pressure, volume, temperature and gases.

And in that same year, she participated in PolarTREC, a program that strives to build collaborative relationships between teachers and polar researchers to help bring authentic science into the classroom. She spent three weeks in Alaska researching the oceanographic conditions of the bowhead whale habitat and reporting her findings to her students more than 3,000 miles away.

Ms. Seff will be returning to Alaska this summer to continue her research, she said in phone interview on Friday.

For the past week, she had been staying in Fairbanks, Alaska, for an orientation where she became familiar with other teachers and researchers she will be stationed with and brushing up on new technology that will more easily bring her experience and findings to her classroom.

“It’s a balmy negative two,” Ms. Seff said from Fairbanks. “It’s been in the negative thirties for a few days. It was so cold you could actually … throw up a cup of boiling water and it would come down as snow.”

Putting up with the frigid weather is just one of many issues Ms. Seff has to face in Alaska. She said polar bears are a true threat where she will be stationed in Barrow and so all those who participate in the program must learn how to shoot a gun.

“You say, ‘Oh, I hope to see a polar bear,’ but then you hear stories and understand,” she said. “We had a large thin one walking around our hotel, which is really a ship container with rooms in it.”

Thanks to PolarTREC and funding from the National Science Foundation, which is managed by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, Ms. Seff will have the chance to go out again with her research team comprised of scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

The research she has been a part of has been studying the physical and biological conditions on the Beaufort Shelf off the coast of Barrow to determine why the bowhead whales congregate there in such high numbers. She said that data demonstrates that ocean winds and current set up a natural krill trap there, providing for a rich concentration of krill for the whales to eat.

She said, however, that the most fascinating piece of information she’s learned, is that through the analysis of the whale—the ovaries of mature females, the whales’ eyes and the analysis of embedded spear tips—bowhead whales are thought to have a maximum lifespan of 150 to 200 years.

It is pieces of information like this and how they arrived at it that is what Ms. Seff hopes to bring back to Springs School, not only to her own students, but to the entire student body and the community.

She said while going to the arctic is not easy, it’s certainly worth it, just like taking the entire eighth grade class scuba diving was.

“I really believe that as we move through the 21st century, education has to think beyond the norm of the typical classroom setting, if we want our children to be ready for the challenges of our rapidly changing world,” she said. “I think it’s imperative to connect students to authentic, present-time science, outside of and beyond what is presented in a textbook.”

She added that such experiences allow students to make real connections to the material at hand and better understand the Earth as a global system.

“It’s great for them to be able to see what real research is all about and to recognize that research does not always happen in a lab setting with someone wearing a white lab coat,” she added. “Our hope is that through this experience our students will be able to better picture themselves in the role of a Science, Technology, English or Math [STEM] career path.”

Ms. Seff, who grew up in Massachusetts and spent most of her time in Cape Cod sailing and scuba diving, got a bachelor’s degree in environmental biology with a focus in marine sciences from Southampton College in 1986.

After a stint in Australia working as a research assistant on a sea turtle research project along the Great Barrier Reef and Raine Island, she returned to the U.S. and worked as a conservation agent for the Town of Mashpee in Massachusetts and then for the Cape Cod Commission as a biologist and planner.

She returned to Long Island in the late 1990s, earned a master’s degree in education at Long Island University and began teaching at Springs School in the fall of 2000.

The PolarTREC program caught her eye in 2012 under an earth science listserv. She liked the idea.

“The polar areas always made me curious because they’re sort of the last extreme areas of the earth,” she said, explaining her decision to head to the arctic. “In education there seems to be many ‘flash in the pan’ programs that come along and are quickly discarded when the next new idea is introduced. I believe that for any program to have merit, there should be a long-term commitment so that the information can truly be synthesized and incorporated into the classroom.”

PolarTREC welcomed her back again this year as an alumni teacher-researcher.

According to Eric Casale, the Springs School Principal, Ms. Seff’s passion is infectious.

“Despite the time difference, Lisa will get up at 3 a.m. for a Skype teaching lesson from her lab,” he said. “She actually goes out and lives it and gets students excited about it by putting science in their hands.”

To keep up with Ms. Seff’s expedition and research, visit www.polartrec.com/expeditions/oceanographic-conditions-of-bowhead-whale-habitat-2014.

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