CReSIS in the Classroom: Meet Gary Wesche


By Katie Oberthaler and Ashley Thompson
Winter 2010

Gary Wesche, a middle school science teacher, is the latest PolarTREC teacher to accompany a CReSIS team to the field. Wesche, who teachers at St. Regis Francis Catholic School in Kansas City, Mo., left Nov. 19 for an eight-week stay on the West Antarctica Ice Sheet (WAIS), where he will keep in touch with is 130 students by blogging from the ice. Shortly before he left, he talked with CReSIS journalists about his expectations for the trip, how his students reacted to their teacher spending the holidays on an ice sheet, and where his passion for teaching science comes from.

What past travel experiences have you had that have prepared you for this trip?

I spent six months in remote Paraguay. I didn’t speak any English. I was by myself, living remotely. I had cold, wet days all the time. I know what to do when you’re bored. My children [Wesche is a father of six] know not to tell Dad that they’re bored.

As part of prepping you for the harsh environment in Antarctica, you attended an orientation session in Fairbanks, Alaska. What types of survival skills did you learn during your weeklong PolarTREC training?

I learned how to make a pair of boots out of a plane seat and a rain parka out of a trash bag.

How do your students react to finding out you’ll be traveling to Antarctica this winter?

For kids to understand there’s really something outside their hometown, even that is tough to grasp. This is such a different thing – their teacher is going to the continent with three miles of ice. They can’t fathom that. They live on a prairie. How to do you explain to someone that the ice is three miles thick? How far is three miles up? Even to tell them that it is nine Empire State Buildings is hard to imagine. They just have this idea that penguins cover the whole thing. And it’s not like we have a populous that already understands the science. The general public is about at a middle school level as far as understanding Earth science.

How will you change this view and engage your readers while in the field?

I plan to write daily and send updates via satellite with mostly text and low resolution pictures. I address my kids as PolarTrekkers to engage them. I will have a “Who’s in the Red Parka?” theme where I feature everyone I meet wearing my red jacket. I ask them to explain their role in this mission.

Why do you teach science?

My take on middle school science is a lot of it is outdated. Most people in science had an early science experience that was memorable. Others will tell you a horror story. I have to compete with television and video games. I need to generate their enthusiasm for science. If I can excite them about science, they will choose to continue learning about it. I have to make it exciting or motivating. Science is still a discovery, a new place, for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

Why is CReSIS research so important to your classroom?

When I attended the CReSIS teachers workshop, science once again became a real discovery. This science isn’t being done in white coats in a lab somewhere. CReSIS science brings excitement. It’s seeking more knowledge for our own good.

And if I can get my middle school students enthused about CReSIS science and science in general, all will win. Children begin to choose their academic or professional direction in middle school. So for me, textbooks make great doorstops in my class. I want these kids to have a good experience with science in middle school, so that when they get to high school they won’t avoid elective science classes like the plague. They’ll get jazzed about it.

Gary Wesche completed the CReSIS teacher professional development workshop “The Heat is On! Confronting Climate Change in the Classroom” at KU, June 2008. The workshop will be held at the PSU campus July 2010.