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From Glacier to Classroom
Illinois Ag Connection - 07/06/2018

Jamie Esler, Illinois State University '07, admits that one of his favorite units to teach is climate change. That's because the high school science teacher can share photos and geospatial data collected from a glacier he studied himself.

In 2013 the Redbird was selected among 14 teachers to participate in PolarTREC, an annual expedition where international scientists team with educators to conduct original research in the Arctic and Antarctic. His group examined glacial mechanics and landforms created by receding glaciers.

Esler assists scientist Lucas Zoet, who is gathering ground-penetrating radar data on a drumlin. Photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation and PolarTREC.

Using a webcam and other remote technologies, Esler connected his students to his field training in Fairbanks, Alaska, the glacial research site in central Iceland, and inside the scientists' lab in Milwaukee.

"I can safely say that it was the best professional development I have ever completed," he said. "It's given me a much more well-rounded perspective on guiding my students through the scientific process."

The Alaskan part of the trip was somewhat familiar to Esler. He spent summers in "The Last Frontier" while working toward his bachelor's in earth and space science teacher education at Illinois State.

"I went ice climbing and backpacking with my brother, picked up jobs around town, and even tutored a middle school student on Alaskan wildlife biology," he said.

Esler was paid in store credit by the girl's mother, the owner of the small town's mercantile.

"I tutored in exchange for fresh veggies. It was awesome."

His trips to Alaska were also where he met and married his wife. They are now raising their child in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, near her immediate family in Montana.

"We love to ski, hunt, and hike. North Idaho had a bunch of job openings, so we started doing some research and found it to be this happy medium of being close to family, but still have a small mountain town lifestyle," he said.

"When people ask about my alma mater, nothing makes me happier than to say that I graduated from Illinois State University and that it's the best teacher prep school in the Midwest."--Jamie Esler The terrain and industry of the area are a boon to his science curriculum. He regularly seeks out career scientists to chat with students face-to-face about their work, and how they utilize concepts from Esler's lessons. His students have interacted with experts from a variety of areas, from water quality to avalanches.

"That element brings so much more depth than what I can provide to students on my own. At the end of the day, they still see me as a teacher. But if I can collaborate with other people who have jobs or careers in that field, it adds another layer of learning and builds a deeper appreciation amongst the students," he said.

Esler's ingenuity and effectiveness were among the traits touted when he earned the 2014 Idaho State Teacher of the Year award. The teacher was surprised with the recognition at an assembly disguised as a school safety meeting. For several weeks, he had a hard time feeling he deserved the recognition, but he found solace in the opportunity to support fellow educators.

"It was the most remarkable, awesome way for me to represent all of Idaho's hard-working teachers. And that's what I think the teacher of the year program is about. As a teacher, there is no greater honor than to represent the incredible colleagues that we have in every classroom. All teachers are really worthy of this," he said.

That year, Esler went to the White House to meet the president, participated in a wide range of workshops, and rubbed shoulders with other state teachers of the year (there were four Redbird winners that year).

"ISU is an exceptional university for teacher preparation. And I think that the many state teachers of the year coming from Illinois State really showcases that," he said.

The experience also led to Esler's involvement with the Idaho State Department of Education.

"I serve as a direct line of key communication between the Idaho Panhandle and Boise when we address new science standards, work with the state legislature when changes impact science curriculum, and I am often invited to participate in education committees as a reviewer," he said.

"There certainly is a level of leadership that has come with accepting this award, and that's probably the most enjoyable part of this recognition."

Reflecting on life at Illinois State, Esler cannot speak highly enough of both the College of Education and the University's earth and space science education program.

"I got to take the coolest classes in the Department of Geography, Geology and the Environment, the Department of Physics, and in the College of Education. I can't stress enough how valuable the balance was between the scientific content and teaching strategies," Esler said.

He shares his Redbird roots with a math teacher in the district, and they often reminisce about their academic experiences.

For Esler, it often comes back to his junior year. He roomed with his sister, Beth Grady '10 (now the Chicago Bulls' manager of public relations), and rode his bike down Constitution Trail to Bloomington High School for observations.

He also volunteered after school to coach the school's Science Olympiad team.

"I did not have a single poor experience in my College of Education courses," Esler said. "Not one. They were all helpful and all meaningful. When people ask about my alma mater, nothing makes me happier than to say that I graduated from Illinois State University and that it's the best teacher prep school in the Midwest."

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