Increasing Public Understanding and Participation in Polar Science through the International Polar Year
“Words are things; and a small drop of ink, Falling like dew upon a thought, produces That which makes thousands, perhaps millions think.”
The public’s interest in polar regions is profound and deep rooted. The popularity of recent films and books on Shackleton’s journey, the prevalence of polar images in everyday culture, and the popularity of adventure literature all exhibit an inherent interest in the region, especially when it is linked with exploration, discovery, adventure, isolation, self-reliance, hardship, passion, history, and exotic landscapes and biota. The International Polar Year (IPY) is an excellent opportunity to build on this inherent interest and engage the public in science targeting all ages through the use of different media. Developing education and outreach programs for the IPY 2007-2008 will take a concentrated effort by formal and informal educators and the media working closely with active scientists. As with the International Geophysical Year (IGY), this public outreach holds the potential to leave an enduring legacy by fostering a new generation of scientists, engineers, and leaders. The education and outreach strategy for the IPY 2007-2008 will develop a diverse range of opportunities with actual participation by students of all ages.
Embracing the possibilities for interactive programs made possible by emerging technologies, IPY 2007-2008 education, training, and outreach should be extended to all age groups while building on successful existing models. Fortunately, we live in an age of extraordinary communications, especially compared to previous IPYs and the IGY; new approaches should be taken that are interactive, that make use of diverse media, and that provide opportunities for hands-on participation by the public. Education and outreach efforts could target the next generation of scientists by including opportunities at both polar regions, targeting underrepresented groups and minorities, and promoting international understanding.
Building a strong and lasting bridge between the polar regions of the Earth and the polar science community with the public and students of the United States will require innovative integration of methods, media, and forums enabled by modern communication and data technologies. Elegant posters for classrooms, the Scholastic Weekly Reader, and short film clips were the principal approach of the IGY in 1957-1958. For the IPY 2007-2008, we must build on the diverse array of educational methods and media outlets now available so that the full range of learners—from retired citizens in Arizona to elementary school children in Maine—are engaged in polar assessment and exploration. Some fundamental building blocks of the IPY 2007-2008 education and outreach programs will be:
Field experiences for teachers and students of all ages who can serve as ambassadors to the diverse educational and media outlets and who may become the future scientific leaders.
Remote participatory experiences enabled by high-bandwidth communications and the wealth of existing materials on polar science for students and learners of all ages, touching the wired classrooms of the nation and the active and strong national network of science museums.
Leveraging the network of polar-savvy reporters, authors, artists, and filmmakers who have been involved in study of the polar regions and who remain a tremendous resource.
HANDS-ON PARTICIPATION IN THE IPY
The wonders of the polar regions are best experienced through active participation. Scientists routinely take in situ observations in the polar regions, but the IPY might expand field participation to include all education levels and ages. At the most basic level, the IPY endeavor could train future scientists, engineers, and leaders by placing a special emphasis on fieldwork during 2007-2008. Formal programs, such as the Research Experience for Undergraduates, already exist to provide field experience to undergraduates, but there are few formal programs that can reach out to a large percentage of undergraduates and graduates who are interested in polar field experience.
In K-12 classrooms, teachers have a tremendous role in communicating the science of change and exploration to young students. Field experiences for adventurous teachers, coupled with programs that can be easily implemented at the national network of science museums, are needed to help expose the polar regions to today’s youth, who are tomorrow’s leaders. Another untapped resource for entraining students in polar studies is through the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of America. For instance, Paul Siple went to Antarctica as a Boy Scout on the first Byrd Expedition (Siple, 1931, 1959) and Eagle Scout Dick Chappell went to Antarctica during the IGY. Another novel product that could result from IPY research is the creation of children’s books and outreach to scholastic publishers to include more IPY research in textbooks.
For the public, ecotourism can promote increased public participation and understanding of the polar regions. Tourist ships could participate in the science of IPY by
taking in situ measurements, and expert lecturers on cruises, along with field trips taken off ship, could make indelible impressions on participants. There is some concern that ecotourism is a double-edged sword in that the growing number of cruise ships and tourists may negatively impact the largely undisturbed polar environs. However, tour operators in the Antarctic region have been working with the various governments involved to minimize their footprint.
The tangible benefits of experiencing the polar regions are easily shown through reflection on the IGY. A cadre of people parlayed experience in Antarctica into graduate programs, and several IGY-era people, such as Kirby Hanson and Mario Gioveinetto, went to the South Pole without a bachelor’s degree and have gone on to obtain doctorates and do significant polar research. Moreover, many participants in IGY who visited Antarctica in 1957 and 1958 returned to school to get Ph.D.s, and many became professors or researchers in nonpolar fields, highlighting the fact that many other fields and society as a whole benefited from the field experience of these individuals.
GLOBAL PARTICIPATION IN THE IPY
Although field courses can bring students, teachers, and the public to the polar regions, novel education programs, the proliferation of communication technologies, and the internet can bring the polar regions to classrooms and homes and reach out to people who cannot or do not want to experience the polar regions firsthand. The continued and growing emphasis on education by agencies, consortiums, and professional societies could serve as the basis for virtual participation in the IPY, educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, and leaders. For instance, many of the large granting bodies, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy, have offices for education, and for the next IPY a strong interagency effort for education must begin well in advance of 2007-2008. Many nonprofit organizations, foundations, and university consortia, such as the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the University of the Arctic (see Box 6.1), can also advance the goals and themes of the IPY.
The University of the Arctic (UArctic) is an international non-governmental organization dedicated to higher education in and about the circumpolar north. UArctic partners in the United States include the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and Illisagvik College in Barrow. UArctic is a decentralized university without walls that mounts programs of higher education and research, builds local educational capacity, and stimulates cooperation among participating institutions. Courses in the Bachelor of Circumpolar Studies are available both online and locally at member institutions. Students may also participate in exchange programs with another UArctic partner. Students, researchers, and instructors can participate in field courses across the Arctic. The Northern Research Forum and Circumpolar Universities Association organize major conferences on northern issues and provide opportunities for the academic and scientific community to interact with other northern stakeholders.
Professional societies also may share the IPY goal for education and outreach. More than a dozen societies have a polar mission, and many have their own educational outreach programs, including grants-in-aid for research and travel assistance for participation in conferences as well as magazines and journals. The societies’ network of activities could be encouraged to promote IPY projects. In addition, significant industrial development now exists in the Arctic. Through their philanthropic programs, these companies may be interested in sponsoring certain IPY education activities. By linking individual philanthropists with university initiatives and activities, new opportunities for students can be created.
An increased appreciation for the polar regions can also be achieved through more informal means, such as exploratoriums, museums, and competitions like the Odyssey of the Mind (see Box 6.2). Building on successful programs run by groups such as the San Francisco Exploritorium could help to reach hundreds of thousands of students through live feeds from the polar regions. Expanding this program nationally and linking it with teacher training would provide real participation across the country. Public museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution, attract many visitors each year and offer an excellent virtual outreach opportunity through interactive displays, Web cams, and more traditional museum pieces.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity for interaction lies with the internet. It is the modern tool that can provide virtual experience, enabling the public to become involved in the IPY. Interactive websites, streaming video, and distributed computing all offer opportunities for participation in the IPY. The next-generation advancement of the internet (http://www.internet2.edu) will make it even more feasible to create interactive websites and will facilitate effective and rapid transfer of IPY streaming video. Distributed computing parses small parts of a problem to many computers and then combines the results into a solution. Recent distributed computing projects to look for extraterrestrial radio signals and to find more effective anti-AIDS drugs used hundreds of thousands of volunteer computers all over the world via the internet. Websites currently exist to link interested volunteers with projects (e.g., http://www.aspenleaf.com/distributed/), and the IPY might use distributed computing for a variety of uses, including polar climate modeling and genomics.
The Odyssey of the Mind School program fosters creative thinking and problem-solving skills among participating students from kindergarten through college. It features an annual competition component at local through international levels. Students solve problems in a variety of areas, from building mechanical devices such as spring-driven vehicles to giving their own interpretation of literary classics. Through problem solving, students learn lifelong skills, such as working with others as a team, evaluating ideas, making decisions, and creating solutions while also developing self-confidence from their experiences. More information on the Odyssey of the Mind is available at http://www.odysseyofthemind.com/.
CREATIVE MEDIA APPROACHES
In addition to direct and virtual participation in IPY activities, the IPY 2007-2008 will be more successful if the public is given information about how the study of polar processes is of importance to daily life and to global processes in general. This effort will be facilitated by translating research activities and results into everyday knowledge by innovative use of the media, thus giving the public the chance to be involved in the IPY. Public outreach for the IPY likely will involve a mix of traditional technologies, such as radio and print media, with recent advancements, such as satellite TV and the internet.
The major news networks and the nation’s prominent newspapers collectively remain the largest and most effective portal to reach the public. Embedded journalists from these sources can be an information portal for the public, and recent successful examples, such as New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin’s trip to the North Pole Observatory, highlight the tremendous public interest and potential for embedding journalists.
Popular science publications and national newspapers have always been important in bringing polar activities and research to U.S. citizens, while educational programming on nature and history is in such demand now that there are entire television networks devoted to each. Traditional nature shows such as “Nova” or TV series documenting polar history and culture would highlight the IPY, but additional programming directed at younger viewers may have broader appeal. Documentaries about young Inuit life, an Eagle Scout’s trip to the ice, or a graduate student’s first season in the Arctic or Antarctic may inspire other young people to explore the polar regions further, either through a career in science or as a lifelong interest.
Specialty networks, such as the NASA Channel, The Science Channel, and the National Geographic Channel, also can provide in-depth coverage of IPY activities throughout the IPY-intensive field campaign. Live video expeditions or similar realtime polar educational programs also could stimulate public attention by profiling prominent polar research expeditions during the IPY. On the radio, programs including “Radio Expeditions,” a collaboration between National Public Radio (NPR) and the National Geographic Society, could produce feature stories on the IPY for NPR’s Morning Edition. The general themes for stories are the natural world and threatened environments, diverse cultures, adventure, and exploration and discovery (http://www.npr.org/programs/re/index.html).
The key to securing coverage of IPY on any of these outlets is an effective public information arm. The template for productive relations with the media is the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Office of Polar Programs. The benefit is that NSF is able to bring public and political attention to the research programs it supports, informing both taxpayers and elected officials of the value and achievements these research efforts provide. Any public outreach plan will, of course, rely on the existing public information offices of the various universities and agencies whose researchers are involved in IPY.
Simpson Bay is a good location to work because it is teeming with wildlife, Davis says. “About 120 otters make their home in the bay, where there is a good cross-section of otters, and where about 20 to 40 puppies are born each summer,” he adds. “It seems as though these pups are born in something like 10 or 15 seconds. It happens fast. You can be looking at a female, turn away and look back and, suddenly, she’s got a puppy!
“We are doing some very basic research on sea otter ecology,” he explains. “First, we photograph the otter’s face using a digital camera and a telephoto lens, so we can distinguish one individual from another. We can identify individuals often because many otters—especially females—have pink scars on their black noses, which result from mating behavior. In recognizing distinct individuals, we can begin to ask questions about individual behavior and movement patterns. We can actually follow those individuals across time.”
“We also collect some basic information on this individual. If the otter is feeding, for example, we may stay for a while and record dive depth, duration, location, and see what it brings to the surface. If we find a territorial male, we may be looking for different types of behavior such as patrolling, interacting with females, or mating. We follow these males around and map out their territories. We’ve also been characterizing the physical environment so we can better understand why otters are using certain parts of their habitat and not others.”
Davis says that his volunteers are highly motivated individuals, age 18 to 80, who are very interested in nature. Over the summer, he works with seven teams of six persons each. “Each team comes in for about 10 days and then we have four days between teams, so we have a two-week cycle. These six-person teams are then broken up into two teams of three. Usually, each three-member team, plus me or one of the other research leaders, goes out every morning or afternoon on small boats to make observations and collect data.
“Being out there in the wilderness with, not just sea otters, but with a whole range of animals—from bears to mink to seals to seabirds—makes a lasting impression on these individuals,” says Davis. “It certainly gets them thinking not only about biology, but about conservation. We have fairly long discussions in the evening about all these types of issues.” Not surprisingly, a number of volunteers include teachers who join the expeditions not only for their own enjoyment, but to go back and share what they have learned with their students—further multiplying the outreach endeavor.
Recognizing the need for conservation at the poles is one of the take-away messages of these expeditions and Davis sees this same potential for the International Polar Year. It is an opportunity to focus public attention and imagination on the very unique environment that exists at both the poles, on the exciting science that is going on, and on the importance of this research to citizens of lower latitude countries. “I think it will get people interested and excited, and that translates into additional support. It also raises awareness and support for those treaties and policies that protect these areas and the wildlife that is there.”