Erin Towns has been teaching high school for 24 years and she knows one of the best ways to get through to students: Take them out of their comfort zone.
Towns joined faculty, researchers, and education professionals at a PolarSTEM Conference in Alaska during the summer of 2022 hosted by The University of Maine and Juneau Icefield Research Program. Battelle’s Forest Banks offered conference participants the opportunity to develop proposals for programs to increase interest of high school students in PolarSTEM and possible future PolarSTEM careers. “We were challenged at the conference to increase interest in Polar Earth and climate science and careers in the Arctic for underrepresented student populations and the Battelle grant provided vital funding that could help make it happen.”
While at the conference, Towns met Amas Aduviri, Executive Director for Student Access and Enrichment Programs at Oregon State University and Haley Dunleavy, the Communications and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager from Toolik Field Station. Together, they designed a proposal entitled “Engaging Students in Virtual Field Design in the Arctic” that won a grant from Battelle. “We wanted students to get experience in a field environment with experts and share that experience in creative and innovative ways with their peers and Battelle made that a reality.”
On August 18, 2023, 12 high school students from the Oregon TRIO-Upward Bound Program who had never visited the Arctic, traveled the infamous Dalton Highway by bus for 10 hours to TFS. There they joined scientists in the field learning about and exploring impacts of climate change. Students flew drones and used 360 cameras to capture imagery that will be used to create 3D content for virtual field experiences that help high school students across the country to learn about the Arctic without being there.
Towns and Dunleavy wrote the curriculum for the five-day trip and taught students in the field about climate science, photogrammetry skills, and science communication. Adding depth to the curriculum, TFS scientists, staff, and Arctic support services crews shared a lot about their jobs and potential career paths students could consider in the future. One student commented that they were surprised just how many people it takes to make a science team successful.
Upon arrival at TFS, the students got a first look at their accommodations—tents on wooden platforms with little more than beds, desks and a space heater. “It’s the middle of nowhere on the Arctic tundra surrounded by research station buildings. Their eyes got really big when they first arrived.” said Towns. Students met the challenges of outhouses (referred to as The Towers), two two minute showers, and weather much different from Oregon summers. One student told Towns and Dunleavy the night before departure that he was skeptical and may have regretted his decision to come. He was encouraged to keep an open mind. At the end of the trip he shared he was glad he gave it a chance and that others should too. “I would have missed out on fun, new friends, experiencing the unknown, and learning a lot.”
Highlights included teens working in the field directly with research teams. Students helped collect samples for the Ecotypes Project, which studies tussocks. They followed all steps to ensure samples were collected in the right way. Students also joined a research team from Appalachian State studying permafrost. They were able to climb into a gully and measure depth of permafrost. “One of our students used a drone for photogrammetry data collection for a permafrost scientist. He was thrilled to be doing something that scientists asked him to do and did a great job.”
Back in the classroom this fall, high school students in Maine will process the collected imagery and data and make 3D models for virtual field experiences. The entire process from start to finish will be totally created by high school students. “This is an important feature of our program. This kind of curriculum gives students practical real world skills that can be used in the future.” As many of the participating students at Toolik were Latino youth, they expressed the desire that the final virtual field experience also be multilingual, and so it shall be.
In the meantime Amas Aduviri’s Upward Bound Program team are having Toolik student participants share their experience with future summer program participants in an effort to spread knowledge about and gain interest in traveling to the Arctic. Towns, Dunleavy, and Aduviri have ambitions to expand the program over the next few years. They are looking to gain more access to drone technology, and build in more time and opportunities for students to learn at Toolik.
“Our start was amazing, we are a great team, and we want to expand the program. Being at a research station is vital to the learning process. Working directly with scientists in the field, talking to staff, eating with the research station community, and spending time around them puts students on a different level of interaction. It is more personal and up close. The impact is profound.”