MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — Since 2003, Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary (SMWS) wildlife ecologist Billy Helprin, aquatic limnologist Tom Lawrence and Conners Emerson science teacher Brian Cote have been taking students to various waters around the island for Frozen Classroom field days.
Over the years, students from local elementary schools have participated in the Frozen Classroom experience, which includes rotating sessions of group activities at Acadia National Park’s ponds and lakes. Designed to get kids learning outside and having fun, the Frozen Classroom consists of activities such as an ice fishing derby, animal tracking, survival shelter building and discussions of winter adaptations of plants and animals.
The program began almost 20 years ago when Helprin and Lawrence began brainstorming ways to incorporate various school curricula into engaging outdoor activities. Since moving to Mount Desert Island, it has been part of Helprin’s mission to get kids outside and learning “not just for playtime, but to incorporate engaging academic lessons, developed with teachers, for student benefit,” he said. Helprin worked with Lawrence, who created the Floating Classroom watershed science program that took kids out in canoes to the deepest parts of area lakes for water sampling for many years. That program now resides at SMWS and is conducted with the help of sanctuary volunteers and Acadia National Park education staff.
Teachers consult with Helprin to find ways to achieve their curriculum goals in different ways. They can visit the sanctuary for field study or Helprin can go to them to help in their own outdoor classroom spaces. Over the years, teachers from all area schools have requested assistance with different types of projects and activities.
“Eighth graders from Mount Desert Elementary School in Northeast Harbor have been doing the Frozen Classroom experience, particularly on Somes Pond and Seal Cove Pond, for years,” said Cote.
This year, the fifth-grade team at Conners Emerson worked with Helprin to run five Frozen Classroom activities that were facilitated by Chrissy Parkinson, Heather Dority, Michael Fournier and Cote.
“We had the Conners Emerson fifth grade on Somes Pond last week, led by Brian Cote, and fellow Bar Harbor science teacher Lynn Hanna is planning on having her eighth-grade students out on Somes Pond when conditions allow, likely this week,” Helprin said. The last week of February, The Community School and MDES eighth graders were also engaged with Frozen Classroom activities. Due to poor ice conditions and field trip timing, the program has not happened every year.
“The programming depends on adult facilitators and their interest and levels of expertise,” said Cote.
The Frozen Classroom has several activity stations for students, with ice fishing being the most equipment intensive. Usually a teacher, like Cote, or other community members with lots of ice fishing experience, oversees that activity.
“There were 18 holes in the ice that had been drilled the evening before for students to keep an eye on,” said Helprin.
He explained that students typically measure fish weight and length, identify species and make hypotheses about what species is likely to be found in different parts of the lake. “Brian adds to the fun for the kids by having prizes for most fish caught, biggest and smallest, and most species caught.”
“This year, the fifth grade had two other sections that included Chrissy Parkinson guiding a session on map and watershed reading and social studies teacher Michael Fournier leading a session focused on land-based economies with a creative role–playing game,” Helprin said.
Helprin went on to explain that “a core activity of the Frozen Classroom has always been exploration of the nearby forest and pond’s edge, usually on snowshoes, looking for examples of plant and animal adaptations to the stresses of winter.” This includes reading behavior of animals based on their recent signs left in the snow, how different tree species handle snow loading and thinking about ways heat is lost or conserved. According to Helprin, the students in this classroom discuss various strategies for dealing with winter including hibernation, migration, food storage and the personal or individual economies of dealing with food shortages in winter.
“It’s pretty much a blast,” said Cote. The Frozen Classroom has an annual theme, which this year, Cote said, was “interconnectedness and gratitude.“
“There’s always more to learn, so we go out, explore, ask questions about what we observe, come back to the inside classroom and use other resources to try and figure things out more completely,” said Helprin.