Britta Culbertson holds an arrowtooth flounder that was caught in the boat’s trawl. Photo courtesy of Britta Culbertson

Britta Culbertson holds an arrowtooth flounder that was caught in the boat’s trawl. Photo courtesy of Britta Culbertson



Britta Culbertson spent two weeks in September trolling the Gulf of Alaska while exploring glaciers, scouting for humpback whales and battling minor seasickness. 

She was in Alaska researching pollock for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Teacher at Sea program. 

Culbertson is a former Center School (305 Harrison St.) science and art teacher. After eight years at Center School, she left in 2012 to be an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow. 

“I kind of felt like there was something more out there,” she said. “I felt like I needed to break out of the walls of my classroom and see what else I could do in education to help change things.” 

Hands-on experience

Culbertson moved to Washington, D.C., and began her work as a fellow, which included, among other things, helping teachers find professional development opportunities. As a perk of the job, she got to take advantage of some of those opportunities herself. That’s how she ended up as a Teacher at Sea aboard the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson. 

Culbertson traveled to Kodiak, Alaska, and left for sea on Sept. 4; she returned Sept. 19. The 33-member team on the Oscar Dyson included scientists, crew and fishermen. 

Culbertson worked from noon to midnight. She helped the crew collect the juvenile pollock and some of their food, competitors and predators to study. 

The boat stopped at different points on a grid, collecting samples from 50 to 200 meters down in the ocean. Janet Duffy-Anderson, a research biologist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center on Lake Washington, was one of the scientists on the Oscar Dyson with Culbertson. She and the other researchers process the data to determine what the population will be like when the fish are matured.

It’s important to study the pollock because it’s a billion-dollar commercial industry, Duffy-Anderson said. “A lot of people’s jobs and livelihood depend on it.” 

The ecosystem is changing with the climate, she said, so it’s important to understand how the pollock population is reacting to those changes. 

On one of the days at sea, Culbertson was called to the bridge to help keep lookout. The boat was near a large pod of humpback whales, and the crew wanted to make sure it didn’t cross paths with them. 

“Just knowing that I was in the presence of all of these whales [was] pretty exciting,” she said. 

Another day, the winds reached 30 knots (34 mph). The “other people weren’t scared, but I’d never been in rough seas like that,” Culbertson said. 

She battled mild seasickness — “nothing a little...medicine couldn’t fix” — while the boat stopped operations and took shelter in a bay. 

“It was pretty exciting [to see] how much the boat rocked back and forth,” she said. 

When Culbertson first got on the ship, she was intimidated because she’d never done marine biology research before, but she was surprised by how welcomed she felt. 

“I felt like I really caught on to the science,” she said. “I was actually doing science with scientists.” 

Duffy-Anderson said Culbertson was actively involved in the research. 

“It’s important for teachers [to do this],” she said. “They’re educating our next generations of citizens and scientists.” 

Seven of the eight scientists on board, including Duffy-Anderson, are based in Seattle. Culbertson was involved in the data collection process but didn’t see any of the analysis that happens back in the labs in Seattle. She hopes to continue working with the scientists and invite them to speak to her classroom when her fellowship ends.  

Heading back to the classroom

The adventure and hands-on-learning at sea was exactly what Culbertson needed.

“I loved being with my students, but I felt like I was never being very stimulated myself or that I had a voice,” she said. 

In an ideal world, Culbertson would both a teacher and an education activist for teachers. After accepting a second year at the fellowship, her Center School job was no longer held for her, but she plans to returns in 2014, when she’ll be placed in an open position somewhere in the district. 

She’s also open to another role helping teachers. 

“I really miss teaching,” she said. “I’m having an amazing experience in D.C., but I don’t get to be with kids anymore.” 

Culbertson is already planning lessons based on her Teacher at Sea experience for when she does return to the classroom. She plans to create a lesson looking at federal fisheries regulations, using actual data from NOAA. She also plans to teach her students about NOAA careers. 

While on the boat, she talked to different engineers who described themselves as people who didn’t really like school and wanted to be more hands-on. Those are career paths she could envision for some of her former students, she said. 

“It’s rejuvenating, and it’s exciting,” she said. “I have an interesting experience where I get to grow and then I get to bring that back to my students.” 

Duffy-Anderson thinks it’s important to bring this real-life science back to students. 

“It’s important for students to see how data are collected in the real world and how it’s put to use and have access to real data,” she said. “That’s very empowering.”

On top of that, there’s a major learning component for Culbertson. 

“If I was a good teacher before the fellowship, I must be an amazing one after,” she said, laughing. “I know so much more than I did going in.” 

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