Science teacher goes north for summer

May 10, 2013 — by Michelle Leung

Last summer, science teacher Lisa Cochrum visited polar bears in Spitsbergen, Norway, up in the Arctic Circle. 

Last summer, science teacher Lisa Cochrum visited polar bears in Spitsbergen, Norway, up in the Arctic Circle. 
Cochrum saw many different polar bears and even an entire family of them from the decks of a boat specially designed to sail in the Arctic. 
One particular night, Cochrum woke up to watch polar bears with her fellow passengers. She said that waking up in the middle of the night gave her the chance to see sights she might not have in the day time. 
“A polar bear killed a seal, ripped the flipper off and brought the flipper over to our boat, just like a dog,” Cochrum said. 
As every other passenger pushed for a spot at the railing of the boat, Cochrum couldn’t get a good view until she saw a hole in the side of the boat. 
“I stuck my head out the hole, and the polar bear was 20 feet away,” Cochrum said. 
When the polar bear began to stand up and reach dangerously close to the boat, she couldn’t decide between staying close to the polar bear and retreating to safety.
“I [finally] backed up because the kids back at school would have missed me,” Cochrum said. “And I saw the guide had his hands over my ankle, ready to pull [me to safety] if I went through.”
The guide was an expert on bears, and her polar bear was apparently “just curious,” so Cochrum leaned back out the hole to see that the polar bear was still reaching up. 
“We had this moment,” Cochrum said. 
Seeing Cochrum’s encounter with the polar bears, other passengers attempted to experience the same proximity. The next day, the passengers gathered to see another polar bear.
“I went back to the hole, and this woman who saw me the other day decided she wanted to see the polar bears up close too,” Cochrum said. 
The woman opened a porthole even closer to the polar bear. It proved a bad idea when the polar bear stood up again.
“Everyone yelled, ‘Shut it!’” Cochrum said. “But I was good; I didn’t open a porthole. I was a little bit naughty because I laid on the deck and stuck my head out, but it was so much fun.”
Another memorable moment during her Arctic trip was when one polar bear went up to another polar bear. According to Cochrum, the polar bear “asked” to share the seal the other was eating. Since the two polar bears were of equal strength, they split the meat. 
Soon after, yet another polar bear “asked” to share. To Cochrum, the most amusing part of the experience was watching the polar bears participate in their “jaw war,” a term she dubbed the argument over the seal meat.
According to Cochrum, the trip to the Arctic Circle to see polar bears was one of her favorite three trips of all time. 
This summer, she will be embarking on another trip to the north, this time to Alaska with administrative assistant Janet Verson.
“We are going to hike on a glacier, kayak in between glaciers [and] hike on trails all over,” Cochrum said.
She plans to include elements of her favorite subjects in her agenda.
“Because I teach earth science, I get to go to the site [near Adak, Alaska] of one of the biggest [9.5] earthquakes and tsunami. I’m really jazzed about that,” Cochrum said. “Then for biology, we are going to fish hatcheries. We get to go behind the scenes at Katmi Island.”
And finally, she will see the brown-furred cousins of her favorite Arctic polar bears. 
"When I actually get to a place like China or see the polar bears in the world, suddenly all the materials I studied interconnect," Cochrum said. "When I come back, not only do I have a much deeper connection, but I also get these great stories to work into the curriculum. Kids will remember that dumb story about the panda peeing on me, and it acts as a hook for the curriculum."
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