Celeste Cruse, a 7th-grade teacher at Lawrence School in Falmouth, spent two weeks in arctic Alaska in July with environmental scientists from the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). Her stay at Toolik Field Station was through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Teachers program.

During my recent adventures in the Arctic, someone said to our group, “Describe Alaska in one word.” Hmmmm. Cold? Beautiful? Wild animals? (Oh, that’s two words.) The response they were looking for was “vast.” The size of the state and the distance I traveled over the two weeks was indeed vast. And the experience and knowledge I acquired was even more. In mid-July, I traveled more than 4,000 miles from Cape Cod to Toolik Field Station in Alaska, where I met up with four other teachers and took part in the action during peak research season. MBL Senior Scientist Ed Rastetter met us there. Ed is the is the principal investigator of the NSF Arctic Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site at Toolik Field Station, and he has a wealth of knowledge about arctic research and Toolik Station itself. He and MBL Senior Scientist Gus Shaver have been coming to Toolik to do their investigations since the 1970s and have seen some major changes in the landscape during that time.

people around a table

Most of our time was spent on “the Pluck”: studying samples taken from the tundra -- from the permafrost (permanently frozen soil) up to the canopy. Some chief scientists were looking for micro-fauna, including arthropods and other invertebrates - I even saw a tardigrade under the scope!. Some measured carbon and/or nitrogen in the samples – its use, storage, release and retention. Some cataloged the diversity of plants, including roots, rhizomes, stems and leaves. One analysis even tested the removal of a species and how that affected others in the area (as well as the carbon and nitrogen in the soil). A lot to process in the amount of “stuff” in the samples and data to be input and analyzed! (We picked through so much soil, I asked Ed if a post-Toolik manicure was included in the funding.)


soil sampling

We hiked to the sampling sites, drove to others, and even helicoptered to do pitfall trap removals and sweep-net sampling. (The investigators had set the pitfall traps a few days before to capture invertebrates that were active on the ground and we sweep-netted to capture those that were presently active in the canopy.) That was awesome in itself but, on the way back to the station, we saw a herd of more than 1,000 caribou migrating across the tundra! We also saw a herd of musk oxen on our way to Toolik along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. We were warned to prepare for vast numbers of mosquitos, but encounters with them with minimal. The sun shone most days, making for ideal working conditions. The sun never really set either. It inspired someone to coin the hashtag #WeWorkTilTheSunGoesDown. Living at Toolik was an experience in itself. I shared a weather port with five other women: four teachers and a scientist.

We worked together, ate together, relaxed together, and became great friends as we shared our life experiences, work/teaching strategies and a shared sense of humor.  “You Betula, we were lichen Toolik.” I am not really an outdoorsy person, but the Toolik facilities and staff were top-notch: professional and prepared for anything. Water was conserved, food waste composted, resources recycled, incinerated and/or shared. The place is a well-oiled machine, which gave the scientists and support people the time and hassle-free environment to do good science in a timely manner. No wonder nearly everyone I spoke to said they would come back in a heartbeat (and I really don’t think it was just for the excellent food!)

group in front of toolik lake sign

I have so many to thank for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, but mainly the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) donors that funded my trip. I will bring back a vast amount of knowledge to my classroom this year. I'm planning to incorporate a “mini-pluck” to catalog the flora (and fauna?) of the Lawrence School’s newly created vernal pool outdoor lab space. This will show the students how everything is connected in the food web: that manipulating one factor can affect the whole ecosystem. I will also expand my unit on carbon as a major player in environmental cycles and include the significance of nitrogen in the Cape Cod environment. I had an amazing time in Alaska this summer. If anyone needs anything done in the Arctic or somewhere else exotic next summer – Give me a call. I’ll do it for the kids!