A Watchung School fifth grade class took a virtual field trip in February, traveling thousands of miles to Antarctica to learn about how climate change is affecting whale populations. 

But before they could embark on the trip, they had to do some work – studying whale population data, learning about technology used to study whales and reading about life in Antarctica.

The journey started in the fall, when Watchung teacher Drury Thorp received an email she was not expecting. Beth Connors, a 2007 Watchung graduate, reached out to reconnect. 

Connors is pursuing a doctorate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and at the time of the email, she was about to travel to Antarctica to study climate change and polar microorganisms. 

She was also part of a virtual classroom outreach program through Palmer Station Antarctica, a long-term ecological research site established in 1990. 

Through the program, teachers learn about scientists' research in Antarctica and implement lessons about the research, then their classes meet virtually with scientists to ask questions during a 30-minute call. 

“I wanted to reach out to you specifically because you really inspired me to turn my love of dolphins into a career as a scientist,” Connors said in her email to Thorp. 

“I can vividly remember you showing pictures of scuba diving to me and encouraging me to pursue marine science when I was in your class. I really hope to give back to your students and encourage other young students to do the same.”

Thorp remembers loving her time teaching Connors and was not surprised that she had become a scientist, she said. 

“She was obsessed with dolphins, and not in a way that kids collect stuffed animals because they are cute, kind of obsessed, but obsessed with deeply learning all she could about them,” she said. “I have always loved the sea and am an avid scuba diver, so I had plenty to share with her.”

Thorp applied to the program soon after hearing from her former student and was accepted. But instead of being paired to learn from Connors, the class of Watchung fifth graders was paired with researcher Ross Nichols and graduate student Arianna Torello, both studying the effects of climate change on humpback whales.

Watchung School students learned about how climate change is affecting whale populations during a Feb. 21 video meeting with scientists in Antarctica. (COURTESY DRURY THORP)
Watchung School students learned about how climate change is affecting whale populations during a Feb. 21 video meeting with scientists in Antarctica. (COURTESY DRURY THORP)

On Dec. 7, Thorp attended a virtual professional development session with the scientists in Antarctica to learn about their work. After conducting her own additional research, she started to teach her class about what it is like being a scientist in Antarctica and about the specific studies being conducted by Nichols, Torello and the rest of their team, led by scientist Ari Friedlaender.

Thorp focused her lessons specifically on the research of Logan Pallin, another scientist working with the team in Antarctica. In January, Pallin published a study finding that reduced krill supplies — whale food — lead to fewer pregnancies in humpback whales. The study contains data on humpback whale pregnancies from 2013 to 2020 off the Western Antarctic Peninsula, where krill fishing is concentrated.

The Watchung students analyzed data provided by the scientists to determine if Pallin’s hypothesis was correct, Thorp said. They learned about new technologies for tagging whales and acquiring skin and blubber samples, and about citizen science efforts like Happy Whale, a global whale-identifying project. 

“Our students also learned just how difficult and dangerous it is to conduct research in the coldest place on earth,” Thorp said.

On Feb. 21, her class met virtually with Nichols and Torello, joined by classes from Randolph, New Jersey, and Cedar Falls, Iowa. At the beginning of the call, the camera panned away from the scientists to the landscape behind them, a breathtaking view, Thorp said. 

After introducing themselves, the scientists responded to questions from the students. 

Nichols and Torello discussed life on the station – living in a remote place, eating meals cooked by a professional chef and hiking on a glacier in the station’s backyard – how they ended up conducting studies in Antarctica and highlights of their research.