Scientists go online to educate public about Antarctica

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Originally published in the Antarctic Sun

The Web site of veteran Antarctic researcher Sam Bowser sums it up well:

"Science is useless unless it's shared, and most kids are born scientists. (What do you expect from a species that's asking "Why?' by the time they turn 3?) We believe in getting people involved with science, no matter their age or experience level" (bowserlab.org).

From small-scaled and personal methods, such as Bowser's offer to speak to school classes, to sites such as penguinscience.com that allows students to watch nesting penguins and submit their observations online, numerous Antarctic projects are reaching out to spread the excitement of research.

The massive ANtarctic geological DRILLing project known as ANDRILL, in addition to providing outreach programs, arranged for educators to do a little reaching in. The program known as ARISE - ANDRILL Research Immersion for Science Educators - provided six educators from four countries with the opportunity to work alongside the scientists in the field. (See Nov. 26, 2006, issue at antarcticsun.usap.gov.) They are not only able to transfer that firsthand experience to their students but are also preparing projects to be shared with other teachers through Project Iceberg (www.andrill.org/iceberg).

Another example of programs that bring in educators for a first-hand look at field work is the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research project led by Peter T. Doran of the University of Illinois at Chicago (mcmlter.org).

His study included upgrading and maintaining long-term automated lake monitoring equipment in the Dry Valleys. The study's dive master was Robin Ellwood, a middle school teacher in New Hampshire, who said the experience enhances her ability to share with students how questions and problems are addressed in the field.

"Students have a direct connection with people in the field - having a primary source typically increases motivation and curiosity," she said by e-mail after returning home. "Having a field location in Antarctica sparks the interest in students even further; Antarctica seems to ignite a natural curiosity for students. My experiences have improved my understanding of current research, which allows me to pass on more accurate and current information to my students."

She added that following "real time" studies was more interesting for students than learning about past studies from textbooks.

Getting back

While the objectives of outreach programs are to enhance education and foster enthusiasm about the sciences, the researchers stand to gain from the interaction themselves.

Bowser, of the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center, said that it's a lot of fun keeping in touch with the K-12 students and that it helps boost morale at the research camp.

"The funniest thing I ever heard from a kidlet was this," he related by e-mail. "A first-grade girl asked me how mommy penguins were able to find their babies after they go hunting for food. I honestly didn't know the answer, so I said, ŽI don't know, but I am friends with one of the world's experts, and he would love it if you called him and asked that question.'"

Bowser said that his response evoked a look of horror from the youngster and he thought she was intimidated by the idea of speaking to an expert on penguins. He learned of her real concern, though, when she asked, "Is it a 1-800 number?"

Tom Crawford, a post-doctoral fellow from the University of Chicago who is working with the installation of the new South Pole Telescope, is collaborating with other team members to provide regular Webcasts through the Exploratorium of San Francisco (www.exploratorium.edu/poles).

"We were a bit apprehensive when we signed on with the Exploratorium," Crawford said, "because of the significant time commitment we knew the Webcasts would involve, particularly at this critical juncture for the project. And while we have indeed spent significant time preparing for and participating in the Webcasts, it has generally turned out to be both enjoyable and not a strain on the progress of the telescope."

The program is enjoying success, too, according to Robyn Higdon of Exploratorium, who said that archived programs online are viewed by 3,000 to 4,000 people a day.

Looking toward IPY

"We are planning to continue the collaboration with the Exploratorium through the International Polar Year," which begins in March, Crawford added. "One of our long-term outreach goals is to produce a series of short videos answering some basic questions about cosmology as a whole and our project in particular."

Crawford and others on the South Pole Telescope project also are contributing to a blog, a popular tool with many of the research projects. Often, they are used to convey the experiences of the writer, relating encounters with penguins and extreme weather, for instance. Many will delve into the research a bit, too.

Mak Saito, an assistant scientist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was recently deployed aboard the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer as part of a study called CORSACS: Controls on Ross Sea Algal Community Structure (www.whoi.edu/sbl/liteSite.do?litesiteid=2530). His Nov. 27 blog entry was titled, "The Algae Need Their Flintstones Too."

In it, he related that when researchers added both iron and B12 they observed that phytoplankton in the Ross Sea greatly increased in biomass.

"This is one of the first findings that phytoplankton can be influenced by a vitamin in the natural environment, and suggests that this vitamin could be quite important in controlling the ecology of this marine ecosystem," Saito wrote.

And, thus, students were able to follow along with the findings of scientists in the field. In touch with the field

That same sense of being close to the research led Bowser to another aspect of his relationship with students back home. His team flies the flags of several classrooms on the roof of his remote camp, called Camp New Harbor.

"It helps give the students a more direct sense of involvement because their flags are helpful to the helicopter pilots [to determine wind direction for landing], and they help us by making a terrible racket when the wind kicks up at night," he said. "On more than one occasion I had to get out of my toasty sleeping bag and tie something down outside. The kids also get to see what the environment has done to their flags once the season is over."

Some Web sites include fully developed lesson plans for teachers to incorporate into their classes.

The Laboratory for Ecophysiological Cryobiology at Miami University of Ohio has several plans on its Web site (www.units.muohio.edu/cryolab/education), such as one called, "Who Eats Who in Antarctica?" It is designed to be modified for kindergarteners to eighth-graders and teaches about Antarctic food chains, featuring the more photographic animals of the continent.

Steve Padin, a cosmologist from the University of Chicago who will spend the austral winter working with the new South Pole Telescope, knows why outreach is important. He said that his interest in astronomy was sparked as he followed the Apollo program that first put men on the moon.

"I remember watching the first moon landing, and all the ones that followed, and I remember reading all about the program in the [London] Sunday Times. It must have caught my imagination because I don't remember reading much else in the Sunday paper.

"I'm pretty sure I didn't spend much time wanting to be an astronaut, but I did start to think of science, particularly physics, as cool. ... Now I'm here at the South Pole building the SPT. And I still think physics is cool."

Researchers include planned education and outreach aspects of their programs in their proposals to the National Science Foundation.


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