Send Your Camp to the Ends of the Earth! Join PolarTREC Teachers as They Explore Science and Adventure in the Arctic and Antarctic

by Jeff Peneston

Most campers have heard about global warming. They know what polar bears are. They love penguins. They use the insensitive term "Eskimo" to describe the native people of the Arctic. They often think that scientists lead boring lives wearing white coats and working in laboratories. And most camp nature programs are limited to the ecosystems at their own camp property. This summer the kids at my camp used the Internet to talk with real scientists at remote field locations in Alaska, Norway, the Bering Sea, and Russia — and they learned that the scientific study of polar ecosystems and native culture is a real adventure!

With a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, the PolarTREC program was designed to offer teachers and schools the chance to work and communicate directly with scientists conducting polar field research. The Arctic Research Consortium of the US (ARCUS) selects about twelve teachers each year and sends them to work with the scientists at both ends of the Earth. The teachers’ job is to help the researchers collect data and then to translate the science into daily online journals including photos, audio files, and video clips from the remote field locations. The teacher then hosts live webinars through the Internet that allow the kids and the scientists to interact. This year, when I was chosen as one of the teachers to go to Antarctica, PolarTREC also got its first American Camp Association (ACA) member. I have been the program director of Camp Fire USA, Camp Talooli for over twenty years as well as being a ninth grade Earth Science teacher at Liverpool High School (just North of Syracuse). Now I want to share my upcoming adventure with ACA camps across the country.

I will be the only teacher (and camp professional) on board the Swedish icebreaker Oden as it explores the Southern oceans and sea ice around Antarctica from late November 2008 to mid January 2009. The ship is roughly the size of a football field, and teams of scientists from Sweden and the U.S. will call it home as we cross the roughest and most remote part of the world’s oceans. The expedition will start at Montevideo, Uruguay, cross the Drake Passage, and then push through the sea ice along the Antarctic coast until we reach McMurdo Base in the Ross Sea.

Some of the science teams will study the diseases affecting seals, while others will study greenhouse gasses given off by the microscopic algae and bacteria living inside the sea ice. Many kids know that most of the famous large animals in Antarctica feed on the small but abundant krill (twoinch- long, shrimp-like crustaceans). The krill, and the rest of the food web, depend upon the annual crop of green algae that grows inside the floating sea ice around Antarctica. Scientists don’t know how the global warming is affecting the sea ice and these ecosystems — this is what I am most interested in learning more about.

Oden will take us deep into the sea ice that reaches out from the continent at the bottom of the world. I am very excited to walk on the ice and look for seals, penguins, and icebergs made of blue glacial ice. My expedition on the Oden will occur during the beginning of the Southern Hemisphere summer, I expect the temperatures to be about the same as my family will be experiencing during early winter back home in Upstate New York. (We live in the snow belt southeast of Lake Ontario where below freezing temperatures and ten feet of snow each year is normal, so I am prepared for the weather.) However, the thought of living on a Swedish icebreaker for two months, thousands of miles away from my family, is giving me a newfound respect for the concerns of the first-time campers who come to camp each summer.

PolarTREC Webinars

This past summer our campers were able to participate in live webinars with five PolarTREC expeditions. Campers joined the one-hour teleconferences as part of our scheduled nature program time or as an optional activity. Before each live event, I gave the campers a chance to review some of the recent journal entries by the PolarTREC teacher, and I showed them where the expedition was using maps and a globe.

During the first half of each webinar the scientists would describe their work using photos and diagrams while the campers wrote questions that I would type in. The second half of the hour gave the science teams a chance to respond to the questions and give some of the kids a chance to ask their questions live — using the computer’s built-in microphone.

The PolarTREC teachers and the scientists really appreciated the curiosity and enthusiasm of the campers. Six-year-old Esther asked the teacher how long it took her to get from her home in Arizona to the research ship in the Bering Sea? Samantha wanted to know how much krill the scientists had caught in their nets, and Katrina wanted to know what kinds of starfish and other little animals had been found in the sea mud. When Emily asked if the ship had had any dangerous encounters we were surprised to learn that they had a whale surface right in front of the ship!

The campers were also eager to learn about daily life on a remote scientific expedition. Campers asked if the archaeologists working in the Iñupiat village had a chance to eat whale meat and see people tossed on a giant blanket (they did both!). They were also interested in sleeping quarters and outhouses in a "science field camp." One camper wanted to know if the mosquitoes were worse on the tundra in Barrow, Alaska, than they were at Camp Talooli!

Life-Size Antarctic Animals . . . at Camp?

Before I leave for "the ice," I will visit many classrooms (and a few other camps) — and I know that kids will want to know about animals. So, I asked my camp art director, Annie Higgins, to help me make life-size models of Antarctic sea life that I could transport with me. We found some really old canvas in the tent storage loft and tacked it up to a wall. Then, using transparencies that I photocopied from an Antarctic field guide, we were able to project and trace life-size images of the animals onto the canvas. We had campers cut out and paint the canvas animals using regular house paint. When it takes six campers to hold up the eleven-foot long canvas body of a thousand pound leopard seal and four kids to stretch out the wingspan of a wandering albatross, the impact of the true size of these animals hit home. In fact, the educational effect was so powerful our nature director plans to cut out similar canvas models of our local animals next summer!

Camps Fly Their Flags Over Antarctica!

I’ve been planning to be the Antarctic flag bearer for camps. At the beginning of last summer I made an offer to ACA camps. Upon request, I would send them a blank flag that they could use to create their own camp Antarctic expedition flag. If they sent the flag back to me, I would take it on the Oden and fly it over Antarctica at McMurdo Base. When I get back home I will mail the flags back to the camps.

Over the last few months I received over 100 flag requests. The finished flags that I have received back are great! I even received flags from the national ACA office! During my two-month trip, I will post photos of each flag in my daily online journal, and I encourage everyone to watch for them. You can explore my journal and read about the international expedition of the Oden at www.polartrec.com/oden-antarctic-expedition-08. You can also e-mail me at jpeneston@polartrec.com, and I will send you occasional updates and reminders of my upcoming webinars.

Join the Expedition
Your Camp Can Join a PolarTREC Expedition

  1. Check out www.PolarTREC.com and go to the Virtual Base Camp where you can read the daily online journals of the four PolarTREC expeditions to Antarctica this fall and winter. Have kids read the journals, review the expedition maps, and then post questions for the scientists in the "Ask the Team" forum section.
  2. Participate in a Live from IPY teleconference webinar. Each expedition will include two scheduled live sixty-minute webinars. Register to participate and then plan an event at camp where your members can join people from across the country in a live conversation with the scientific teams. You will need a computer with Internet access. Connecting your computer to an LCD projector and external speakers is helpful. If your computer does not have a built-in microphone, you can join the webinar with a speakerphone using an 800 number. After you register, you will be sent instructions through e-mail that will help you configure your computer. Before the webinar, have the campers review some of the teacher’s online journals and write down questions that they want to ask. During the webinar, you can type in the questions or ask to read your questions live. One of the lessons my campers learned during webinars is that remote scientific field sites don’t have good Internet connections and may rely on the use of satellite phones with limited bandwidth. Campers should be prepared for the occasional loss of signal during the webinar. They should also not expect live streaming video. The webinars are hosted by the ARCUS office in Fairbanks, Alaska, so the signal goes from Antarctica to Alaska to your camp and back! The images on the computer will be slides, photos, and maps that support the content of the teleconference.
  3. Plan to participate in PolarTREC expeditions to the Arctic next year during the summer camp season. Check out the great expeditions that were completed in the summer of 2008 to get an idea of what to expect.

Jeff Peneston has worked at camps for over thirty years and has helped his wife Jan direct Camp Talooli since 1986. He is an American Camp Association (ACA) Accreditation Visitor Trainer and a former Board Member for ACA, Upstate New York. He also leads conference workshops on creative camp program development.

Originally published in the 2008 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.