Call of the Wild
The word ‘Antarctica’ is not easy for a four-year-old to pronounce, but every single child at Barrack Heights Preschool in Shellharbour can say it! Thanks to Kinderloop, the preschoolers went on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Antarctica from the comfort of their Illawarra classroom. Ingrid Maack from Rattler magazine reports.
Did you know the wingspan of an albatross is this big?’ says James MacDiarmid, stretching his arms out to demonstrate the immense size of the seabird. ‘The wingspan is six feet… that’s as tall as me!’ says James, who in November and December last year visited the land of the albatross: Antarctica. Back on the mainland after spending two weeks with a team of scientists, oceanographers, marine biologists, tree dwellers and educators on the Spirit of Mawson Australasia Antarctic Expedition (AAE), teacher James popped into Barrack Heights preschool in January to meet the children who had followed his journey. ‘They all knew exactly where I’d been as they’d all experienced the awe and wonder of Antarctica alongside me. They were full of questions about the temperature, the wildlife and what life was like aboard the ship.’
James had been working on an entirely different project in his role as a curriculum consultant for Big Fat Smile (a not-for-profit communityowned organisation servicing the Illawarra) when he briefly mentioned his upcoming Antarctica trip to staff at Barrack Heights Preschool. The preschool had been trialling an app called Kinderloop and recognised the technology could be used to follow James’ Antarctic journey in real-time through videos and photos. Kinderloop is a secure network that allows families to remotely view children’s learning and content uploaded by educators. ‘Big Fat Smile suggested I take the app with me to stream my experiences back into Barrack Heights Preschool for the children to watch and discuss. I would take a photo of an animal or science activity and that would be uploaded for the children to observe, ask and formulate ideas about,’ he explains. It also created an opportunity for James to later visit the preschool in person, providing children with an opportunity for deeper thinking or to ask burning questions about life on the frozen continent.
Preschool director, Fay Gowers, told Rattler it was an ‘exceptional opportunity’ for the children and staff of Barrack Heights to follow the expedition and learn side by side. ‘The children really enjoyed the journey which allowed them to learn many new things and experience an opportunity many adults can only dream of.’ Barrack Heights is a suburb of the City of Shellharbour just south of Wollongong. The demographic across the Illawarra is very mixed, with pockets of
affluence and disadvantage. Traditionally, this part of the Illawarra has a blue-collar history with heavy industry forming the backbone of this community. Barrack Heights Preschool was purpose-built in 1983 and is part of Big Fat Smile network of 40 community preschools. Fay explains that educators would check Kinderloop daily with the children to see the photos sent through, but says they also observed the children sharing knowledge with each other.
‘By making the photos available to parents via Kinderloop the children could also continue their conversations with their parents at home. It was really very easy to facilitate. Even just a few years ago pulling something like this together would have been difficult. ‘We were entirely amazed by the children’s reaction when James came to meet them. They’d already seen many of his photos but his conversation had them captivated for well over an hour. ‘Once the slideshow of photos started, the children were enthralled and totally engaged in what they saw and the information he was describing. They had prepared questions to ask James and were able to remember them without prompting. James describes the experience again and again as ‘wondrous’. And Antarctica is an environment which enchants children and adults alike with awe. ‘A lot of footage I chose to show to the children is of wildlife—animals in particular engage a child,’ he says. ‘That’s where my wonder comes into play. Since I was a young child I have enjoyed animals. It was a great privilege growing up on a farm and as I have travelled around the world I have experienced great wonder in going into the natural habitats of animals. ‘On this trip I was able to get very close to animals (on land and sea) including a yellow-crested penguin, fur seal, sea lion, elephant seal and even a whale. ‘I showed the children footage of a penguin returning to its den and audio of a 700-kilogram male sea lion roaring. They were fascinated. Sea lions are a great source of fascination. I think even the word sea lion fascinates children because of the word ‘lion’. They know how majestic and powerful a lion can be. He says his favourite experience was being in a small zodiac (inflatable boat) with a group of marine biologists and seeing a southern wright whale of at least eight meters in length. ‘We got so close that I was able to put half my body in the water (wearing a dry suit of course) to take video footage. We could see the whale’s teeth as it took in plankton from the surface of the ocean.
‘I can now take that footage back into the preschools and share the magic of that experience with them. However, I am not going to show them just yet, as I don’t want to bombard them with too much wonder or they might disengage.’ He says he was ‘blown away’ by the
children’s questions, which ranged from what he ate and where he slept on the ship to how he avoided seasickness. The biggest challenge, he told them, was being on the boat for days on end and experiencing big swells that confined the team to their bunks. James has always had a passion for environmental advocacy and the great outdoors. He grew up in Australia’s Snowy Mountains and worked as a teacher in Sweden at several international schools. While there are some parallels between the Australian and Scandinavian education systems, he says, they are poles apart when it comes to learning through nature. He has noticed the children of the Illawarra are blessed with a rich natural environment on their doorstep, but which sadly very few children visit with their families and/or educators. ‘They might live 10 minutes from the beach or Lake Illawarra but rarely go. What is so fascinating about Scandinavia is that it’s in the arctic. They have five hours of sunlight a day during winter and nine months of the year they are engulfed in snow and yet every single day in the schools I worked in I saw children outside doing their lessons. We don’t see that in Australia despite having vast lands and year-round sunshine.’
A part of scientific history
The journey came about following a series of serendipitous events and chance meetings. An avid rock-climber, he actually met the co-expedition leader (Dr Chris Fogwell from the Climate Change Resource Centre at UNSW), while hanging on a rock. Enthused by this chance encounter and inspired by the expedition that would retrace the steps of Sir Douglas Mawson, and conduct important climate change research, James submitted a YouTube application and won a coveted berth aboard the expedition’s ship. The ship, a Russian icebreaker, later made global headlines when it became trapped in heavy ice on Christmas Eve. Luckily, James was no longer onboard, although he says this would have been ‘an adventure in its truest form’. ‘It’s funny that many people on the expedition are rock-climbers and adventurous by nature.’ While at sea, James did some handson oceanography and marine biology alongside scientists, some of which he has been able to share with the children at Barrack Heights. He was also joined by two other educators (primary and secondary teachers) on the ship and together they plan to develop lesson plans based on expedition science.
So what next?
Even though he’s back on the mainland, James told Rattler he is still in touch with his expedition colleagues and is excited to see how the educational program will evolve. He will continue to work with the staff and children at Barrack Heights preschool and several more preschool visits are planned. There may also be another adventure in the pipeline. ‘I met a fellow doctoral student from Massachusetts who is a glaciologist. We got talking on the ship and I mentioned my interest in glaciers. Next year he’s going to the North Pole, and he invited me along. If I can make this happen, then we want to extend the program to 40 Big Fat Smile preschools and potentially primary schools in the Illawarra too.’ Something tells me this story has an adventure-packed sequel. ★