While some may dread the end of winter break, for Wyoming Virtual Academy (WYVA) this marks the beginning of the most exciting time of the year.
Elementary school teachers Faye Hall and Kris Spencer created the Alaska Iditarod Unit, a student favorite at WYVA. This project-based learning unit incorporates the K12 curriculum while teaching students about the Iditarod, an annual dog race in Alaska.
While Mrs. Hall was looking for math supplements for her classes, she stumbled upon a website about the Iditarod. Over the past five years, she has created and built the unit into what it is today.
“Students learn about all of the rules, the mushers, and the dog teams,” Mrs. Hall said. “They have literature books and websites where they get to interact with their other classmates and talk about the books and answer questions with each other about the Iditarod.”
Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Spencer act as “coaches” and the students each pick their own dog musher – the driver of the dogsled – to keep track of during the race, which can last anywhere from 9-15 days. Each musher has GPS gear, so students are able to have real-time updates of where they are on the trail. Students are asked to give short presentations on their musher before and after the race to show how their musher did and what they have learned from the unit.
“The whole topic is very exciting to them – the dogs and the stamina it takes for the people to run the race,” Mrs. Hall said.
Mrs. Hall also incorporates real world problems into this project-based learning unit. She asks students to solve issues like how many calories the dogs will need daily, what happens if a dog is injured, what survival items to pack, and other related issues. Students are also asked to take into account weather conditions and the culture of Alaska, making for an educational and engaging unit.
“They talk about the weather and culture of Alaska and how it compares to Wyoming,” Mrs. Hall said. “It’s amazing to see them get so into learning and excited each week to find out more.”
During the unit, students are also able to engage in friendly competition with other students and their mushers. After the race ends, awards are given out to students whose mushers finished in first, second, and third place, as well as other special awards for students who are seen doing amazing things throughout the unit.
“Our students do community service projects around their local area to collect dog food and supplies for their local animal shelters on behalf of Iditarod teams,” Mrs. Hall said. “They also have sent blankets for different teams up to their musher and dog team!”
Over the years, the unit has continued to grow with the introductions of new materials and topics. Last year, Mrs. Hall was able to bring in a real dog musher to a live class connect session to present to her students. Such exciting aspects are what make the Alaskan Iditarod Unit a continuously growing, successful, and loved unit that students of WYVA can look forward to every year.