Making Connections in Nature – Bats, Moose, and Prickly Pear…Oh My!

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” John Burroughs

How could one teacher be so lucky?  This summer I was fortunate enough to come face to face with two special animals in the wild that have been on my “bucket list” of nature connections for, really, most of my life.

It was well past midnight as we drove through the Palmer Hay Flats in Alaska in late June, and with summer solstice in full swing, my eyes were having a hard time adjusting to the changes in light.  I was very sleepy as my friend, Sara Lamont, longtime Iditarod coordinator, drove me into the backwoods she knows so well.  We were on the hunt to spot moose in the wild, a lifelong dream.  I remember the feeling of elation when we spotted our first mother and calf.  I felt adrenaline all over my body as we pulled up slowly to see them grazing.  The mother was protective right away and turned and glided through the tall grass with her calf beside her and disappeared into the woods almost without a sound.  It was the most remarkable moment.  There is nothing like witnessing an animal in its own natural world.  As a human being, you feel oddly out of place in those moments, and as John Burroughs once said, I had “my senses put in order.”  It was all the more magical because of the falling darkness that felt like a strange, eerie twilight.

Coming home to Texas, I had my second animal encounter with a visit to Bracken Cave, outside of Austin.  “Keep Austin Weird” is the theme for our city, and with no wonder!  We love our Mexican-free Tailed Bats that live under the Congress Avenue Bridge during the warm months of the year.  Each summer night, over a million bats emerge from their safe, cozy roosts and fill up our city sky.  Each bat can eat 100 insects a night, so they are a welcomed site for “Austinites”.  Bat Conservation International was founded here in Austin, and on this special night in July, I was fortunate to be given permission as a BCI member to see one of the greatest bat emergences on Earth.

It was well over 100 degrees in the Texas heat as we walked past prickly pear cactus to the entrance of Bracken Cave. I gasped as I first noticed the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pups flying wildly outside the cave entrance, while their mothers had patience until sundown to join them, roosting on the cave walls.  They flew with wild abandon, like impatient children, but as the mother bats  joined them, the most remarkable change happened.  The wild, chaotic flying started to form a giant mass of one counter-clockwise formation, getting bigger and faster as night fell.  The mass of 20 million bats began to pull away from the circle and spiral into formations in the sky.  Joining the bats were their predators.  Hawks flew in and out of the spiraling mass, clutching bats with their sharp talons, a snake slithered along the cave ridge, hoping for an easy meal, and a mother skunk brought her babies to the cave floor, searching for unfortunate pups who had fallen to the ground.  This was strangely not a disturbing sight; it was the cycle of nature right before our eyes, and all seemed right.


The 2016 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ in a bat selfie!

“Cup your hands to your ears!” my sister nudged me.  I noticed others doing the same, and even though I felt a little silly, I went along.   When I put my hands to my ears they turned into a natural headphone.  I squealed with delight.  The gentle, beautiful sound of 40 million fluttering bat wings was like nothing I had ever heard before.  There are no words to describe it.  It affected my soul, and I know we all felt connected to these animals in a special way.

This special gathering at Bracken Cave is the largest concentration of mammals on Earth.  Think about that!  I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity, and I wish to return each summer to experience it with my family and friends.

Did you know?  There are bats in Alaska!  The Little Brown Bat, the Long-legged Myotis, the California Myotis, the Silver-haired Bat, and the Keen’s Myotis all make their elusive way into the southern parts of Alaska, and they are all important, as insect eaters, to the ecosystem there.

As a teacher I am always looking for ways to make connections with my students and the world.  Returning from my moose and bat encounters, I wondered if there was a way to do that.  It turns out, there is!

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 12.18.28 PMiNaturalist is an incredible web-based site and app that allows anyone, child, adult, serious scientist or teacher, to make connections with the flora and fauna of their local habitat, then share them with the world.

The iNaturalist site describes its objective like this:

“From hikers to hunters, birders to beach-combers, the world is filled with naturalists, and many of us record what we find. What if all those observations could be shared online? You might discover someone who finds beautiful wildflowers at your favorite birding spot, or learn about the birds you see on the way to work. If enough people recorded their observations, it would be like a living record of life on Earth that scientists and land managers could use to monitor changes in biodiversity, and that anyone could use to learn more about nature.”

I set up my free account, recorded my photos of the moose in Alaska and the Mexican-free Tailed pup in Texas, and the site added the google map and scientific information for me!  Now my observations are there for anyone in the world to see.  There is also a space to journal about your experiences, much like an old-fashioned science paper notebook.  This digital application has remarkable opportunities for the classroom.  My class will be comparing and contrasting the animals and plants of Alaska and Texas, and since my students are under 13 years of age, I will set up a teacher account.   We can then use our class account to begin documenting our local wildlife.  Perhaps we can connect with a school in Alaska and share observations?  The opportunities are endless.

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 12.13.45 PM

Now, these rare and special moments with nature can be shared with others, bringing us all closer, and inspire others to care about the world a little more.

History of the Iditarod – Lesson Plan

"The journey of our past has lead us to the present and will educate us for our future." - David Hutchinson

“The journey of our past has lead us to the present and will educate us for our future.” – David Hutchinson

I like to have my students learn the history of the Iditarod early on in the year so we can refer to it as we progress.  This past week my students have been completing and sharing tasks about the history of the Iditarod.  In addition to using Katie Mangelsdorf’s book Champion of Alaskan Huskies, students also used the following websites:,,,

Each small group was assigned a different task.  One task, entitled Snapshots of History, had students diving into the different decades of the Iditarod.  Obviously, students needed to find out how many different decades the race has been in.  They would then determine, through research, a picture that could represent that specific decade.  For example, one group determined Susan Butcher was the clear-cut choice for their 1980’s picture.  Students created a collage using PicMonkey.

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Another task is creating a Fakebook profile for Joe Redington, Sr.  A favorite status update for students was about Joe and his dogs summiting Denali.  This task was quite appealing to my students as most are very familiar with Facebook.

Joe Redington Sr. Fakebook profile

For my artistic students I had a task to design a flag for the Iditarod.  After designing their flag, students illustrated their flag on their computer using the tool Sketchpad.  This tool allows students to save their flag to their Google Drive as an image.  They then could share the image with me.

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A fourth task was the Cartographer group.  Their task was to map out the Iditarod trail on Google My Maps.  In addition to mapping out the trail, the students had to provide a short description of each checkpoint.

Finally, for my musical students was a task to compose a song for the Iditarod.  Students chose a song and replaced the lyrics with the lyrics they wrote.  When they were ready to sing their song, they used the tool Audiotool to edit.

My students enjoyed doing this activity in class.  Each student was grouped based on interest.  All students learned a great deal about the history of the Iditarod, each group presenting their information in a manner best suited to their interest.

Check out the lesson plan below.  Included are websites to get to the tools the students used to complete their task.  There are also websites listed to aid students in their research.

History of the Iditarod Lesson Plan

History of Iditarod Tasks

Glogster – The Iditarod, Machu Picchu, and Denali

"To travel is to take a journey into yourself."     - Danny Kaye

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.”
– Danny Kaye

Many teachers always comment that they want to incorporate the Iditarod all year, but they don’t know how.  As a result, the Iditarod makes it into their classroom for a small amount of time.  It is very possible to teach the Iditarod year round while still teaching your other curriculum.

My students are currently studying the Maya, Aztec, and Inca civilizations.  During this unit we take a look at the history of Machu Picchu in Peru.  Many hike the 26 mile Inca Trail to the highest point, 4200 meters, Machu Picchu.  My class did some comparing and contrasting of Machu Picchu and the Iditarod.  We also added a third adventure, climbing Denali.

This lesson was done using the online tool, Glogster.  Glogster is a type of social networking site in which you create and share Glogs.  A Glog is an interactive poster that includes text, images, audio, video, etc.  Glogster can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom.  A couple different ways to use Glogs are having students create an interactive poster as a unit project or a teacher generated lesson.  For this topic, I created a lesson for the students to complete in groups.

Photo Sep 08, 8 31 38 AMAt the top of the Glog the assignment is posted clearly for the students.  The assignment is to view the Glog, making sure to click on all the links, images, and view all video clips.  When they are finished they are to individually answer two writing questions; 1. What do you feel all three adventures have in common?  Defend your answer with facts from the Glog.  2. Which adventure do you feel is the most challenging?  Defend your answer with facts from the Glog.

Check out the Glog here.

Photo Sep 08, 8 31 54 AM

With some glitches here and there with Internet connections, this lesson took three days.  We will then have a class discussion over the three adventures.  Our final task will be to get the perspective of someone who has climbed a mountain and has done the Iditarod.  Our class rookie musher, Cindy Abbott has summited Mt. Everest and has attempted the Iditarod twice.  We will ask her which was more challenging for her and why.

Glogster is a great way to incorporate technology into your lessons.  You are able to add so much more to your lessons.  My students are looking forward to creating their own Glogs.


So this year everything I’ve touched has gone to the dogs… and that includes my Robotics Club!

I work with a group of fourteen fourth and fifth graders once a week after school using Lego Mindstorms to begin to explore programing and basic robotics.  We usually spend the fall semester learning how to program and use the various sensors we can add  to the robot and then in the spring semester we compete in a series of challenges… a Summo Tournament, a Triathalon, and this year the Robitarod!

The boys were presented with seven Iditarod themed challenges and then given six weeks to earn as many points at they could.  Everyone started by building their sleds.  They first needed to determine if the robot itself was going to be the dog or the sled.  Then they needed to create the sled.  The official Iditarod Race Rules have this to say about the sleds:

Rule 15 — Sled: A musher has a choice of sled subject to the requirement that some type of sled or toboggan must be drawn. The sled or toboggan must be capable of hauling any injured or fatigued dogs under cover, plus equipment and food. Braking devices must be constructed to fit between the runners and not to extend beyond the tails of the runners.

Therefore, we asked the boys to accommodate for the following in their sleds:

  1. There must be space in the sled for a dog to fit.
  2. There must be an allocated place for the musher to stand.
  3. There must be allowances for where equipment and food would be carried.
  4. There must be evidence of a braking device between the runners of the sled.

From there, they got to determine which of the remaining six events to attempt and in what order.   The challenges required them to take what they had learned in programing, using sensors, and from the earlier challenges and use them in new and unique ways… and all while pulling a sled!  Some teams quickly learned that attaching a sled to their robot really changed the game.  It seemed to affect the drivability and maneuverability of the sled.

It was also a great exercise in strategy.  There just wasn’t enough time to do all of the challenges.  So, the question becomes do you do the ones you perceive as being the easiest first?  Or the ones that are worth the most points first?  And then somewhere near the end, one team started going for partial points at several stations and that proved to be a game changer too!

We had a great time with our robotic dog teams!  You can read descriptions of all of the challenges here: Robitarod

Coming Full Circle

Earlier in this school year as a part of our study of National Parks and as a wonderful tie it to the dog sledding theme that runs throughout my school year, my students and I did a Distance Learning Field Trip with Denali National Park.  [LINK] This is a wonderful program that is presented by the rangers in Denai via Skype. Through pictures, videos, discussions, and hands on activities, the ranger introduces the kids to the sled dogs who help patrol the park in the winter to access areas that are not opened to motorized vehicles.

One of the questions which came up was, “What happened to the dogs when they were too old to work at the park?”  We learned that the retired dogs are adopted by families all over the United States.

While I was on the trail this year, I was contacted by Sharon Winter, with the exciting news that she and her husband Dan were lucky enough to be adopting a retired Denali sled dog!  She was wondering if there was a way to keep the kids involved in the sled dogs’ lives and for them to learn what it means to be “retired” to a sled dog.

It will not surprise you to hear that my answer was “YES!”

Sharon and Aurora on retirement day!  Check out Denali in the background!

Sharon and Aurora on retirement day! Check out Denali in the background!

This week, my class had the chance to meet Sharon and Dan and their newest family member Aurora, via Skype from their home in Eagle River, Alaska.  Aurora’s full name is Princess Aurora Sparklepants!  She wasn’t born at Denali, but was given to the park when she was young.  She is now nine years old and has been living with the Winters for just about a month now.  They also have two other dogs, Amos and Snoopy.  Snoopy is a tripod dog, but he gets around just fine!

We learned that going through the process to adopt a retired Denali sled dog can take years!  There is a long application process that prospective families have to go through, including providing references.  The park looks at where the dog will live (both in terms of climate and kennel space at the home), if the families are active and can provide enough exercise, and if the families have experience with dogs.  It’s really nice to learn that the park works so hard to ensure that their dogs are well cared for in their retirement.

Sharon reports that Aurora’s retired life is pretty different then her working life, but still pretty different then a pet dog’s life!  She has a dog house outside of the house and has her own fenced in area. The fence both keeps her in and any wildlife in the area out.  She goes for several long runs and walks a day, and spends a lot of time with the family outside during the day.  They are trying to get Aurora used to being inside the house too.  She has really never been inside before!  When they first brought her in she wasn’t used to anything in the house!  She was scared of the ceiling fan.  She doesn’t like the noise of the TV either.  She really prefers to be outside.

We had a really wonderful time talking with the Winters and their dogs.  We learned a lot about how sled dogs live their lives when they are retired and it was a great way to wrap up our sled dog filled year!

What’s an Average Leg?

2013-03-03 20.38.15-1Meanwhile Back at School:  This week we have been exploring mean, median, mode, and range.  This skill have been removed from the elementary curriculum by the Common Core, but for me, it’s still a great way to review the basic operations and it’s pretty essential to understand some of the data that comes out of the Iditarod.

So, this week we have been analyzing data galore.  We have calculated the mean, median, mode, and range of the overall winnings of some of the top mushers, ages of the mushers, and numbers of Iditarods they have run.

Attached you will find our culminating activity for this section of the unit. The students will determine what an “average” leg on the Iditarod is.  Half of the class will find the average leg of the Northern Route, half will find the average leg on the Southern Route, and then they will compare their findings.  They will then use this information to determine which route they would rather run on.  My students are usually spit on this decision, but their reasoning is always fascinating to hear!

What’s An Average Leg Lesson Plan

Tales from the Trail: Special Delivery

This year, two mushers will be carrying special packages on their sleds to make a special delivery in Nome.

In order to promote vaccine awareness, Martin Buser and Aliy Zirkle will carry vaccine from Anchorage to Nome.  Vaccines are given to children to help prevent various diseases.  This event is being organized by Lisa Schobert, Vaccine Coordinator and Dawn Sawyer, PA.  The I DID IT BY TWO: Race To Vaccinate program has been working hard to encourage people to have their children immunized.  The program has done several events to promote their cause including providing dog jackets for the Iditarod race dogs on start day, giving families mushing themed charts to track their immunizations, and many more.  The I DID IT BY TWO slogan is to remind families:

I  – Iditarod

DID – Did you know that children need 80% of their childhood vaccines by age 2?

IT – It can seem a little complicated keeping up with recommended immunizations, but the payoff is big!

BY – by immunizing your children on-time by age…


Lisa tells me that she chose Martin Buser to help with the project because he has worked with the I DID It By Two group before and is a great spokesman for the campaign.  He will be carrying the DTAP.  This vaccine is given to children between the ages of  two months and six years.  The DTAP is a vaccine given to children to prevent diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough).  The organizers think that with Martin’s playful personality, he may actually pass the vaccines off to other mushers to carry down the trail!  That would be in keeping with the spirit of the original serum run which was actually a relay.

Aliy Zirkle was asked to participate because Lisa wanted a front line contender, and with second place finishes in the last two races, Aliy certainly meets that criteria.  Knowing how competitive she is, Aliy will most likely put the vaccine in her sled and run her race!  She will be carrying Tdap vaccine which is used for adolescents and adults.  Tdap stands for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis and is used for people aged seven and older.

Each musher will get a box of ten vials to transport and they can package them however they would like to.  Each box weighs 2.3 ounces.  This made me think of the classic, “Can you package an egg and drop it off the roof?” science experiment.  So here’s a little Iditarod themed twist on that activity:  Protect that Vaccine

Here are some photos to share with your kids to show what the vials will look like:

The temperatures that the vaccines are stored at are very, very important.  If the vaccines are not kept between 35-46 degrees F they cannot be given to patients.  Lisa explained to me that if the refrigerator door is left open or someone goes in and out of the refrigerator a lot, the inside temperature can be affected.  They use a Data Logger to continually monitor the temperatures of the vaccines as they travel from one location to another.  The logger, which is similar to a thumb drive, can record temperatures for fifty-six days. Then when the vaccines and logger arrive at their final location, the data can be loaded onto the computer and the temperature information can be displayed in a graph form.  My class has been given a data logger to experiment with, but you can replicate this with a basic thermometer and a refrigerator at home or school:  Keeping the Vaccines Cold

Obviously, to many people, the Iditarod has come to serve as a reminder of the 1925 Serum Run.  That was not Joe Redington, Sr.’s main objective though. His main goals in establishing the race were to project the sled dogs and their role in the culture of Alaska and to save the historic Iditarod Trail.  The Serum Run definitely has a huge role in the history of Alaska and the history of the Iditarod Trail, so it’s kind of neat to see this event as a way to bring the message of the importance of immunizations to villages on the trail.  Here is more on the history of the race and the reasons it started from Katie Mangelsdorf:  Bustingmyth

The go-to picture book for kids to learn about the Serum Run is the Great Serum Race by Debbie Miller.  You can also join the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for a Distance Learning Program about Balto. I wrote about that here: LINK

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History has a great PDF file you could print to give some kids the story behind the Serum Run.  It even has a picture of the original vials to compare to the ones Zirkle and Buser will be carrying this year:  LINK

Here’s a Venn Diagram you could use to compare the Serum Run with the modern trip the vaccines will be taking with Aliy and Martin this year.  VennDiagram

For a writing piece, students could write and record radio spots, like public service announcements for the I DID IT BY TWO Campaign.

The official Press Release is here:  January Press Release – Vaccine

You can learn more about this project here:  LINK

I will have more information soon about other mushers who are “mushing for a cause” or using their Iditarod runs to bring awareness about causes near and dear to their hearts!