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Susy Ellison: Out to sea, be back later

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Susy Ellison: Out to sea, be back later

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By Barbara Dills

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Sopris Sun Staff Writer

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Carbondale resident Susy Ellison is heading out to sea. Way out.

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A science teacher at Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs, she is one of 25 teachers from around the nation selected by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for its Teacher at Sea (TAS) Program, which “gives teachers the chance to participate in cutting edge science, on the ocean, working side-by-side with world-renowned scientists,” according to Jennifer Hammond, the program’s director.

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NOAA’s stated mission is to understand and predict changes in the earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. NOAA received over 250 applications for the 25 spots in the 2013 TAS program, which is now in its 23rd year.

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Ellison was scheduled to sail from Kodiak, Alaska, on NOAA Ship Ranier on Sept. 9, to assist with research on a 19-day hydrographic survey charting the ocean floor in the Gulf of Alaska. She is the fifth teacher to work on the ship since it embarked on this project in May. It will not be her first such teacher-researcher trip, however. She participated in a similar project in Antarctica 10 years ago and in the Arctic in 2011. She had been thinking about applying to TAS for years, and finally decided to do it. 

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“One of my passions is polar science – along with environmental literacy, my real passion,” she stated in our interview, adding, “I don’t know anything about the ocean really. I know a fair amount about water, but not specifically about the ocean. It’s big and deep and it’s 71 percent of the planet, and what do I know? Nothing, really. So I figured I should go while I have the opportunity.” 

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Growing up

Ellison may be relatively unfamiliar with the ocean floor, but she is no stranger to science. Not only has she been teaching it for 20 years — three in Carbondale to fifth graders, and the last 17 as the science teacher at Yampah — she was immersed in it growing up. Her father is a microbiologist, dentist and oral biologist, a trailblazer in his field who taught at the University of Buffalo for many years. Her mother was an oncologist.

Before heading west, first to Utah and then to Colorado, Ellison earned a degree in wildlife biology from Cornell University. She worked at Canyonlands and for the Forest Service in Durango before landing a job at ACES (Aspen Center for Environmental Studies) in 1985, which is what first brought her to the Roaring Fork Valley.

At Yampah, she teaches all flavors of science: life science, physical science, earth science, and a whole collection of experiential and environmental classes she refers to as “outdoor stuff.” She’s even taught home economics on occasion.

Ellison said she’s especially excited to be undertaking this journey while school is in session and her students can participate in various ways from afar.

When asked what she hopes they will gain from her selection as a Teacher at Sea, she responded, “The top thing is for them to see that you don’t stop learning. There’s a big world out there. You should go check it all out.”

She is currently teaching a class on landforms and mapping. She hopes her explorations in this sea-floor mapping project will inspire her students in their own work. “It’s a cool combination, mapping: it’s science, it’s math, it’s social studies.”

She also hopes her trip will demonstrate to students in a tangible way that math and science have an important place in the world. “Making their learning relevant through my own hands-on experiences is vital to getting students excited about science,” she states in the official press release from NOAA.

And, finally, she wants to encourage other teachers to apply to TAS. “They don’t have to be science teachers or high school teachers — they can teach PE, art or even kindergarten.” 

When she’s not busy assisting with on-board research, doing shoreline surveys, or trying out the equipment in the exercise room on Rainier, Ellison will be writing about her experiences. Follow her blog in the Sopris Sun online edition at, where you’ll also find a link to a “Talk to Susy” comment feature available on NOAA’s site for the duration of her trip.

Note to teachers: NOAA is accepting applications for the 2014 field season from October 1-31. More info at