Where’s Chuck? STEM Education Connects K–12 students with Scientists in the Field – Ice Coring in Peru – C. Rodda & C. Hamley

Illustration of Chuck the researcher


When University of Maine climate change researchers Charles Rodda and Kit Hamley took a lunch break from drilling ice cores on a glacier in Peru this spring, they hiked to camp and sat down to eat. That’s when they got a volley of questions via text: “How will you keep all of your ice cores from melting?” “What is your camping setup while on the glacier?”

The interviewers weren’t scientists or locals, but elementary and middle school students in Maine and throughout the country who connected with the researchers through a new program offered by University of Maine Cooperative Extension with support from UMaine’s Climate Change Institute (CCI) and the Maine 4-H Foundation. The Follow a Researcher program gives students a glimpse into a scientist’s world by providing live expedition updates, and facilitating communication between youths and researcher.

“Science isn’t just white lab coats and pouring things into beakers,” says Rodda, a doctoral student at CCI who helped develop the program and is one of its first researchers. In his case, science means putting on crampons, scaling glaciers and drilling ice cores in Peru and Tajikistan to conduct research focused on abrupt climate change.

In March 2015, Rodda and Hamley traveled to Peru to collect snow and ice from glaciers high in the Andes. This summer, Rodda will travel to Tajikistan to join an international team that will retrieve and research samples from the Fedchenko Glacier, the world’s largest nonpolar glacier that covers about 270 square miles and extends about 48 miles.

While in Peru, Rodda and Hamley interacted with participating classrooms and students by sharing prerecorded weekly videos and live tweeting in response to questions. Rodda also will connect with students when he’s in Tajikistan.

Technology called inReach Explorer, a global satellite communicator created by DeLorme, tracked the UMaine researchers’ movements and generated an online map so students could follow their trek in nearly real time.

To communicate with students, Rodda and Hamley used the inReach Explorer, a global satellite communicator created by Maine-based company DeLorme. The tool allowed them to tweet to students from the glacier. It also tracked the researchers’ movements and generated an online map so students could follow their trek in nearly real time. To document the journey, the researchers also took several cameras, including a GoPro; a solar panel and battery pack to charge electronics; an iPad; satellite receiver; and memory cards.

In advance of the weekly question-and-answer sessions, prerecorded videos of Rodda explaining aspects of the expedition and research were released. The videos were created to spark discussion among students and were aligned with Next Generation Science Standards.

An elementary school in Hudson was one of 26 schools or individuals in Maine and 43 sites in the country to participate in the program this spring. Schools in Iowa, Ohio, Rhode Island, Connecticut, North Carolina, Montana, Minnesota and Massachusetts also participated.

Every week while the researchers were in Peru, about 30 fourth-graders would fill Maine’s Hudson Elementary School gymnasium to watch a video, view updates from the researchers and send questions.

The two classrooms — an entire fourth-grade population — also connected the program to other subject areas they were currently studying, such as historical fiction, geography, and the use of Twitter and other technology.

“Real life is so abstract when you’re 9 and 10 years old,” said teacher Sherry Blanchard. “So when you can give kids that hands-on experience that connects them to their lives in the moment right now, that’s what we want for our kids.”

Rodda, who has participated in several outreach events around the state as a UMaine Extension 4-H STEM Ambassador, says having a science-literate society is important, and getting students interested at an early age is essential.

“I think that’s the time — middle and early high school — when students seem to decide if they’re going to be interested in science or not. There’s great research happening here at the University of Maine and we want to make sure students know about it,” he says.

Blanchard and Hudson Elementary fourth-grade teacher Cheryl Wood are learning how to use Twitter with their students. One day after the students had gone home, the two teachers tweeted the researchers to see if they would visit the schoolchildren when they returned.

Rodda and Hamley, who had already planned to travel to participating Maine classrooms, confirmed that they would. The teachers printed the response and taped it to the classroom board for students to see when they arrived. The next morning, students noticed right away and immediately became excited, Blanchard says.

That excitement and connection is exactly what the organizers hoped for when creating the program.

“Follow a Researcher is part of a big effort to connect youth in Maine with current university students. It 05 be the first time a youth has contact with someone who is going to college, or their first connection to a university,” says Laura Wilson, a 4-H science professional with UMaine Extension.

In Peru, Rodda and Hamley looked at signals that have been captured in the ice during El Niños events, or warming of the waters of the equatorial Pacific. They hope to see what El Niños look like in the ice cores to determine if those events 05 have triggered abrupt climate system shifts in Central and South America.

Rodda completed preliminary research in Peru in 2013.

This summer in Tajikistan, Rodda will work with a team of international researchers to drill a long ice core that will be split among teams from the University of Idaho, Japan, France and Germany. Rodda will focus on the core’s chemical makeup, while others will focus on other characteristics, including physical measurements of the ice or biological signals, such as stable isotopes, he says.

In advance of the Peru trip, youth in grades six through eight took part in a UMaine 4-H Science Saturday workshop on campus where they were challenged with determining how to keep ice core samples frozen and intact for research. Students were given ice and materials and were tasked with designing a container that would keep ice frozen under a heat lamp for a set amount of time.

In reality, Rodda says bringing ice cores home from Peru is more like Planes, Trains & Automobiles. It involves horseback transportation, long car rides, even longer airplane trips, and a lot of dry and blue ice, which he describes as heavy-duty freezer packs.

“It’s a great way to get students on campus to sort of demystify the university, and show them some of the cool stuff we do at the university and in the sciences,” Rodda says of 4-H Science Saturdays, which are offered by UMaine Extension.

Organizers would like to continue Follow a Researcher after the pilot year, as well as expand it to other disciplines throughout the university. Connecting youth to campus 05 inspire them to explore higher education, and perhaps come to UMaine in the future, Wilson says.


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