“As we left the home of our host that evening, the scene was saturated with long hugs and moist eyes – a definite indication this project successfully linked students from these two cultures.” In his blog, Bayfield High School science teacher Rick Erickson fondly documents a July 2014 trip with his students to Irkutsk, Russia. The trip was the culmination of Erickson’s work on what has become known as the Superior-Baikal Project, which began as an idea to educate Bayfield students about lake science by comparing the project’s lacustrine namesakes (the third and first largest freshwater lakes in the world by volume, respectively). Soon, however, Erickson found the project growing much more people-oriented, with the lakes merely providing a geological common ground (or common fluvial landform) for students living across vast geographies to learn about each other.
For two years leading up to the Siberia trip, Erickson collaborated with Sergei Baikov, a teacher in Irkutsk, to connect Wisconsin high schoolers with their counterparts in the Lake Baikal watershed. In summer 2015, one year after Erickson’s students traveled to Siberia, Baikov brought a group of his own students to Wisconsin to learn about the Upper Midwest’s lakes and the people around them. During this visit, Baikov’s group came to Madison and met with CREECA’s outreach coordinator Nancy Heingartner on the Memorial Union Terrace. It was during this meeting that the groundwork was laid for the most recent incarnation of the Wisconsin-Irkutsk connection.
Finding success in the intercontinental friendships fostered by the Superior-Baikal Project, Baikov hoped to replicate these results with an even younger set of students in Wisconsin and Siberia by connecting them the old-fashioned way: snail mail. On his trip to the U.S., Baikov carried with him a collection of letters from Siberian children representing the first correspondence in what he hoped might become an ongoing pen-pal arrangement. He gave the letters to Heingartner, who noticed that the letter’s young authors were the same age as her own son.
A stack of letters in hand, Heingartner contacted Olaya Benavides, her son’s third grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Madison, who agreed to facilitate the project. Benavides invited Heingartner to her class in February 2016 to help students draft replies to their new Siberian friends. Heingartner taught the students some basic Russian salutations and other phrases to use in their letters, and even gave them Cyrillic-to-Latin script conversion charts so they could write their names in their pen-pals’ own alphabet.
The results, of course, were adorable. “Dear Daria,” writes one student, “Hello my name is Jocelin. My favorite animal is a koala. What is your favorite animal?” At the bottom of the page, she includes a drawing of herself standing happily in a grassy field with Daria (the depiction made apparent with a prominent caption), accompanied by a dog and a butterfly. Opposite from a detailed illustration of a flower, Jocelin’s classmate addresses her own pen-pal: “Dear Daniel, Hi I am Daniela and I have brown hair and brown eyes. My favorite sport is basketball and football. Do you have a best friend?”
As for the future of the Superior-Baikal Project, Rick Erickson reports that he and Sergei Baikov have maintained regular communication via email and Skype since their face-to-face meetings. Erickson is planning a return trip to Siberia in summer 2018, with the hope of bringing along another group of students from Bayfield High School to learn about lake science and preserve friendships across the globe.