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Celebrating a 10-year Partnership for Polar Education

Lee Narraway © Students on Ice

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Paul Hamilton (centre, holding plastic bag) leads students in a workshop on water quality during the 2010 Students on Ice Arctic Expedition.

Lee Narraway © Students on Ice

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Dr. Julian Starr shares some pointers about Arctic plants during a hike at Sunneshine Fiord on Baffin Island, Nunavut, as part of the 2008 Students on Ice expedition. The student is holding a plant called nard sedge (Carex nardina), an Arctic-alpine species.

In January 2001, marine biologist Dr. Kathleen Conlan found herself on a unique journey to the planet's southernmost continent. The location itself wasn't a novelty because the Canadian Museum of Nature scientist already had a few research trips to Antarctica's McMurdo Station under her belt.

What was special was the setting and people with her. For one, she had a berth on a polar research vessel. And unlike her McMurdo fieldwork, this time she was part of a diverse team of educators and polar scientists providing a once-in-a-lifetime experience to high-school students during the inaugural expedition for Students on Ice (SOI).

"I was certainly excited by it, the kids were engaged, and we went to some interesting places," explains Conlan. She remembers bringing along equipment that included plankton nets, dredging traps and a microscope so that the students could collect and identify some of the tiny sea creatures that keep the oceans alive. "I tried hard to get them to look beyond megafauna such as the whales, birds and walruses, and to point out to them that they are living in a 'soup', surrounded by countless species to learn about."

Ten years on, the Canadian Museum of Nature is still partnering with Students on Ice, which transforms the lives of youth through educational expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. Over that time, five of the museum's scientists have shared their passion for the natural world—especially polar flora and fauna—during 11 of the two-week, ship-based journeys.

"It's not just about sharing their research but also spending time with the youth, who in turn really get to know what it takes to be a scientist and to be passionate about something," explains SOI founder and Executive Director Geoff Green.

And when the Arctic or Antarctica is the backdrop, there's a ready-made setting for learning. "It's a living classroom. When botanist Julian Starr, for example, is talking about Arctic plants, he is doing it right there where they are found."

The museum's partnership with Students on Ice goes beyond providing on-board expertise. Many of the Arctic trips have kicked off with behind-the-scenes visits to the museum's collections and research labs in Gatineau, Quebec. The students are exposed to some of the millions of diverse specimens that record Canada's biodiversity. And during International Polar Year (2008–09), the museum collaborated with SOI and the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada for a series of cross-Canada public lectures on polar issues, as well as youth forums that addressed the question: What does the Arctic mean to you?

Green explains that the museum's support was critical in making his fledgling idea a reality in the late 1990s: "From the beginning, the Canadian Museum of Nature was instrumental, along with the Canadian Polar Commission and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, in getting SOI off the ground. They provided instant credibility and support."

Since that first Antarctic journey, Green's vision for the Students on Ice programme has lured numerous scientists, artists, historians and adventurers who enrich each trip with their expertise and broad approaches to environmental issues. Among them have been Conlan, as well as museum botanists Dr. Julian Starr and Dr. Lynn Gillespie, palaeobiologist Dr. Natalia Rybczynski and phycologist and diatom expert Paul Hamilton.

A vacation it's not! Each expert is expected to lead at least one workshop or interactive learning experience and to mentor the students. The long days are chock full of continuous learning opportunities, not to mention cultural events, bonding exercises and outdoor excursions.

During the 2010 Arctic expedition, for example, Hamilton had students analyzing water samples and collecting sediment cores for a workshop on water quality. And Rybczynski helped lead a university credit course about the evolution of Antarctica's ecosystems in February 2011.

Despite the draining schedule, the energy of the students and the chance to mingle with experts in other fields provides a welcome boost. Explains Green: "Here the scientists have an opportunity to share their passion with kids that want to learn. And it's a two-way street as staff come away being motivated as well."

Conlan reflects on one student she ran into years later who had gone on to study environmental science: "It was such wonderful feedback that he had taken that experience and moved forward."

Hamilton relates how one student emailed him after the trip, explaining that her eyes had been opened by his field activity that had revealed the diversity of the hidden world of lichens, moss and algae that lay beneath her feet. "I felt like I was going back to my university days when I taught outdoor education," he enthuses. "I got revived knowing that you can feed off the excitement of the kids to realize that research is fun to do."

Watch This!

View these videos of Paul Hamilton and Lynn Gillespie inspiring students during their Arctic expeditions.