Friday, October 5, 2007

Sharing Antarctic Science with Enthusiastic Students

October 5, 2007

Today we woke up early and caught a shuttle to Antarctica New Zealand to meet with the Chief Scientist for New Zealand’s Antarctic program. This man, Jim Cowie, is a veteran Antarctic Traveler with a weathered and expressive face that tells uncountable stories about his time on the ice. Jim told us about the New Zealand program, and specifically about New Zealand’s role in the ANDRILL program. With detailed drawings and drilling artifacts, Jim explained to us how the drill site is prepared, how the rig is transported to the ice, how flotation devices are implanted under the ice to prevent the rig from bowing the ice down under the weight of the rig, and so much more. He informed us that, as we spoke, the rig was getting installed at the Southern McMurdo Sound site and it would be up and running by the time we arrived on the ice.

After a very informative meeting with Jim, we shuttled back to the hotel to prepare for our afternoon workshop. For this workshop, each of us would be leading an activity to teach, through experiential learning, about some aspect of ANDRILL.

The workshop took place in meeting rooms at the public library. Approximately 50 students, from age 4 – 16, participated in the workshop. After a brief orientation, the students were divided into 5 groups. Each group rotated through 5 separate activities that were facilitated by the ARISE team members. The activities were all part of the Flexhibit project which was done by one of last year’s ARISE team members. A description of Flexhibit can be found on the ANDRILL website at

Ken and I were leading students through an activity to help then understand how a small organism, a type of algae called a diatom, can help geologists understand how much ice was present in the past. Diatoms are photosynthetic, so they need sunlight to survive. A certain type of diatom lives under the ice surface, and has done so for millions of years. This species grows in chains, and the more sunlight they get, the more compartments they add to the center of their chain. The thinner the ice (hence more sun), the longer these chains of diatoms grow. The thicker the ice, the shorter these chains grow. In the fossil record, in a given rock or core sample, we can compare the number of End pieces of the diatom chain with Inside pieces, since they have different markings. When we compare these numbers, the higher the proportion of inside pieces, the longer we know the chain was, and hence the thinner the ice was. Conversely, in cores that have a smaller proportion of Inside pieces to Outside pieces, we know that that fossil assemblage represents a period of time when the ice was much thicker.

To explore this concept, students were given pieces of the “core” with different colored buttons to represent end and middle pieces of these diatoms. Students had to count middle and end pieces of diatoms represented in their core and, together, we calculated the ratio – which told us relative thicknesses of ice for each section of core. The students thoroughly enjoyed collecting this data, and learning what it could tell us about climate change. Ken, who has an uncanny ability to present information visually, was instantly able to show our ice thickness data in the form of a graph showing ice thickness over time. Though this last part may have been a bit over the heads of the younger students, many of them “got it” and enjoyed being Antarctic scientists for the day!

Other activities involved insulation experiments to see how seals and penguins stay warm, ice flow experiments to understand how glaciers and ice shelves move, and other wonderful activities that are (or will soon be) posted on the Flexhibit link. Teachers, check those out!!

After a great day of working with these very enthusiastic students, we were all invited to a lovely dinner at the home of one of the family’s participating in the workshop. This was a great opportunity to learn more about Christchurch from the local residents, and to relax a bit from our busy days.

While there, some of us took a moment to go outside and observe the stars. We knew that we would soon be headed south, and would no longer be seeing stars. So we had to go enjoy the sights of the southern hemisphere skies! Most thrilling for me was to see the constellation of the Southern Cross displayed brightly in the sky. That is a constellation we do not get to see in the north!! We also were able to see some of the constellations visible in the northern hemisphere, but here they were upside down!

After a lovely meal, and much collegiality, we returned to our hotel, looking forward to a free day on Saturday to do some exploring.

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