Helping Students Find a Polar Direction

When Seth Campbell is in university mode, you’ll hear him explain his job like this: “I use geophysics, modeling, and remote sensing, to study the changing cryosphere and near-surface geology of Earth.”

But in his other life, when he meets kids who aren’t all that inspired by learning from a book, Campbell sees a reflection of himself as a younger person. That’s because the accomplished researcher and university professor didn’t start out as someone who liked books. “I was not the most studious or academically gifted student in the classroom,” he said.

Today, he’s an Associate Professor in the University of Maine’s School of Earth and Climate Sciences and Climate Change Institute. He is also the previous Director of Academics & Research (2018-2023) for the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP), the longest operating Polar research and education program in North America (since 1946). He currently shares leadership of JIRP with two others, Brad Markle from the University of Colorado, Boulder and Annie Boucher who works solely for JIRP, due to the program’s significant success and growth since 2018, now acting as Director of Research. 

Photo: stem student operating a drone with a teacher's help
Photo: An Upward Bound student flying a drone with the guidance of a teacher.

But, as he grew up in a small coastal community in Maine, books meant less than hands-on experiences. His father was an environmental scientist focused on fisheries, wildlife and land use, an outdoorsman, and he even owned a business in the fur industry early in his career. That outdoor experience is what drew Campbell’s attention. “I was always in a canoe or hiking through the woods,” he said. “That was my lifestyle.”

Also a soccer athlete, his sister persuaded him to use his talent in college even after his guidance counselor said college probably wasn’t for him. At the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF), he played soccer but quit when his grades were slipping to the point of no return. Fortunately, he met a professor at UMF who saw his potential. “He kept me in college by enticing me with additional field science activities,” Campbell said. “I got internship after internship and got credit for those experiences. That got me over the hump.”

Between 2001 and 2014, he earned a Bachelor’s in Environmental Science at UMF and then a Master’s in Business Administration, a BA and Masters in Earth Sciences and a Ph. D in Earth and Climate Sciences from the University of Maine (Orono). While learning about business and science, he also worked as an emergency medical technician, a climbing guide, and wilderness medical course instructor, and all field skills that have become useful as an Arctic researcher. And to mentor others.

Photo: upward bound stem students operating a drone in the Antarctic
Photo: Photo taken by students using one of the drones.

For the past five years, Campbell has worked to grow JIRP educational activities in a manner that supports more marginalized students, including Department of Education-funded Upward Bound (UB) high school students from around the country who are low income or who will be first generation college students.  Last year, at a PolarSTEM conference in Alaska that was funded by the National Science Foundation, Campbell met Forest Banks from Battelle who helped guide him to a Battelle proposal for a grant.

Hosting a series of week-long programs for groups of five to 20 UB students per group through the summer, (100 Upward Bound students in total), the program needed significant field equipment. “The idea was to get these kids a real field experience,” said Campbell. “Not learning from the book but doing real science in the field. They worked with graduate students, faculty, and professionals from federal organizations such as the USDA on research activities. They got to draw connections from far off places to their own communities.”

Photo: upward bound stem student looking at their  vr map of Antarctica on their phone
Photo: a student looking at the VR map of Antarctica created using the drone photos on their phone.

The money from Battelle was enough for most of the equipment he needed, such as software, drones, iPhones, 360-degree cameras and more. “They can do field work here, then work with the data at home,” he said. “We want to create a virtual Juneau Icefield and continue to build it and collect data with students annually, some students collecting data in the field and some working with the data to create a virtual icefield from the classroom. It’s like a new age Sim City with real data and real observations.”

Also specific to the Battelle grant, Campbell and team are working to integrate 360-degree photos and videos that they will acquire from Antarctica into classrooms across the country via additional VR activities. Campbell is currently funded on three additional Antarctic projects which will allow his team to acquire these videos and photos from the equipment purchased with the Battelle grant over the next few years. 

Photo: two upward bound stem students using a dronePhoto: a upward bound stem student looking at a flying drone in the distance
Left Photo: Two students looking at footage taken on one of the drones.
Right Photo: Student gazing at an drone in-flight off in the distance.

Unfortunately, his projects were postponed in 2022 and two of the three were again postponed in 2023, but he expects the videos and photos to be collected by spring of 2025 which gives the team time to develop their VR process for upscaling to Antarctica. Despite being thousands of miles away from most people, Antarctica, Alaska, and other polar regions have significant impacts on nearly all of society. This project is geared towards bringing those environments into the classroom to help students understand why they are so important.

This year, Campbell took a group of students on a day hike to a local mountain peak overlooking the Juneau Icefield and made a 3D video that can be played on open-source software or on a virtual reality headset. “You feel like you’re there when you view the video,” Campbell said. “That gives kids who didn’t come to Alaska, a chance to experience it. Battelle gave us the funding to reach these students. It’s been such a fruitful relationship.”

Photo: stem student using magnifying glass to examine plants in a field

October 23, 2023
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