Drawings of polar bears and maps of the Arctic region decorating the hallways signal the arrival of March at our school. So when I read the announcement that teachers could sign up to Skype with one of the polar explorers at the UK Arctic Research Station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, the most northerly permanent settlement in the world, I registered immediately. I am a teacher-librarian and know from many previous Skype sessions that an experience like this would be an inspiring launch activity for the first grade study of the Arctic habitat. The first grade teachers when our application was accepted.
To prepare the students we told them that they would be speaking with a polar explorer who would tell them what it’s like to work in such an extreme location. The students prepared questions they wanted to ask Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop, the Director of the Digital Explorer program. The questions needed to be ones that weren’t readily answered on the internet.
On the day of the call, my students learned a lesson about time zones that they didn’t expect. When you Skype in the morning from the west coast of the US with a person who lives nine hours away, you can’t see anything outside because it’s already the early evening. While the students were disappointed that they couldn’t see the landscape, they were thrilled about the question and answer experience.
Jamie started off our Skype call explaining that the polar scientists were researching how glaciers are changing over a melt season and how they might change in the future and the impacts that might have for sea animals in the area.
Then we started our question and answer segment. One boy about the thickness of the sea ice we were surprised by the answer. There is no sea ice at all around the island at all. In fact the temperatures are so warm this year that their most difficult problem is not bone-chilling cold, but rather rain. The rain, fog, wind storms and murky days are affecting the equipment and causing a completely different set of problems.
Jamie answered numerous other questions about how they protect themselves from polar bears, working in the extreme cold, and their recycling and composting procedures during our twenty-five minute Skype call.
When one boy asked if they put ice in their drinks there, we learned some fun facts about iceberg ice. Jamie’s answer got lots of giggles from the crowd. Apparently iceberg chunks make a fun hissing sound when the ice melts in water and the air is released after being trapped for thousands of years.
For many children, that single ice chunk story will be the one the children remember from the experience and that’s okay. These conversations with scientists thousands of miles away highlight the impact of virtual field trips. The likelihood of any of us actually traveling to the Arctic is slim at best. However, through Skype virtual field trips, students can have the next best thing. They can virtually be in Svalbard, talk to the experts in the field, and experience science as it’s happening in the moment.
We ended our call with cheers and claps. Comments like “That was awesome!” “It was fun!” “The best day ever!’ “I loved it because he (Jamie) can explain things to us.” let us all know the impact of the experience.
Indeed, the lessons from this virtual Skype field trip extend beyond the call. The Digital Explorers have created frozen ocean resources which teachers can download and use in their classrooms. When our students started studying polar glaciers in class this week, they were able to view a 360 view of a scientist rappelling into a glacier from the UK Arctic Research Station in Ny-Ålesund. As One little boy told me, “It was fun because we actually saw him and didn’t just see it in a book.” Skype in in the Classroom can bring learning to life!
This post was cross published on the Skype in the Classroom Blog.