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Pequot science teacher bonds with students over TikTok adventures

High school biology teacher Josh Borchardt likes to go on outdoor adventures and livestream his experiences on TikTok as a way to engage students and teach them real life science lessons.

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Pequot Lakes High School biology teacher Josh Borchardt and three friends skied across Mille Lacs lake in February. Borchardt livestreamed the journey on TikTok so he could teach his students about science along the way. Submitted Photo

Engaging students is no easy feat. Doing it during a pandemic is even tougher.

But a Pequot Lakes teacher turned to social media as means of connecting with his students while teaching valuable lessons at the same time.

Josh Borchardt has hundreds of views on each of his TikTok videos, with one reaching more than 3,400 views. The high school biology teacher is an avid adventurer — mountain biking, scuba diving, mountaineering — and turns his excursions into learning opportunities.

“When I started getting into teaching in the K-12 setting, I started realizing how much science and everything goes into my gear and my equipment and forces when I’m using ropes and building anchors, and my nutrition and everything — the things my body goes through from going through high elevation or really cold temperatures — and I just started kind of blending my interests with education to loop kids into that mix and have them practice this stuff and get outdoors and realize what’s out there,” Borchardt said during a phone interview Thursday, March 18.

His most recent expedition was a ski trip across Mille Lacs Lake in frigid temperatures last month. He and a couple friends trekked the roughly 16 miles from Garrison to Liberty Beach on skis, passing through the geographic center of the lake where they set up a camp for the night, as the journey took two days.

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Borchardt felt the trip would be a sort of distraction for his students, who might be struggling with seasonal depression this time of year or getting burned out from the school year and the COVID-19 pandemic. And with the live TikTok videos, students got some science instruction in on the weekend.

“We were going through a unit on homeostasis, which is how organisms maintain their bodies or their selves,” Borchardt said. “And so what I was trying to show them is, ‘What is my body going through when I’m doing high aerobic activities, when I’m in extreme cold?’”

With temperatures around 0 degrees for the excursion, Borchardt also taught the kids about compensating for the extreme temperature differences that happened between him moving on skis and then standing still in cold, windy weather.

After documenting the trip on TikTok for students to watch, Borchardt brought his equipment into class to talk about the various purposes of everything.

“We talked a little bit about design, but we also mostly talked about the human body and the different physiological effects that we go through when we move through extreme environments,” he said.

By using TikTok — a popular video platform for teens and young adults — Borchardt aimed to reach his students in a space where they’re already comfortable.

“There’s not a single teacher around that isn’t trying to get a kid off their cellphone, so if I’m in the cellphone, then they’ll see me still,” he said. “And I actually had a lot of students come up to me who didn’t even have me as a teacher, and they are like, ‘Mr. B, you showed up on my for you page,’ which I guess is just the page that recommends videos.’”

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Thanks to a recent grant, Borchardt plans to step up his video game with a set of virtual reality goggles with a 360 degree view camera.

“There’s so much open source VR tech out there, so we could go on a scuba dive to the bottom of the ocean. We could watch animals on a coral reef,” he said. “So I’m hoping in the following years I’ll just keep building on this sort of immersive technology component to science, and I’ll have fun with it, but also the kids will get a lot of experience using different technology.”

Not everyone has the means to travel or to buy the latest technology, so Borchardt hopes he’ll be able to bring them new experiences they wouldn’t otherwise be able to have.

And that’s especially important during a pandemic.

“There’s so many kids suffering with the distance (learning), with not being close to friends or family or teachers. We try as hard as we can, but the relationship is sort of missing during the pandemic, and that’s what’s causing a lot of the strife and stuff,” he said. “... I think a lot of people are starting to get towards that burnout stage, and we’ve just got to keep going, and so I want to keep kids having fun and engaged and know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Borchardt also wants kids to realize the great adventures they can go on practically in their own backyards.

“I never thought I would go ski around Lake Mille Lacs. I’m usually skiing in the Boundary Waters or backpacking the Spear Hiking Trail or going out west or something, and you know 45 minutes from home, we’ve got this big beautiful lake that’s just like skiing to the North Pole,” he said. “... So I want people to know that there’s still a lot of adventure out there, and there’s a lot of new ways to think about things, and in addition to the importance of the scientific education, there’s a lot of natural beauty around us. There’s still a lot left to explore and do even close to home.”

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Borchardt’s videos can be found on TikTok at @mrbtiktokscience.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .
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