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Listening to and Teaching 5th Graders at the Top of the World

by Sarah R Johnson, Wild Rose Education; photos by Lloyd Pikok, UIC-Science

On March 28, 2023 I had the opportunity to teach an Arctic sea ice and ocean circulation lesson in the Arctic village of Utqiaġvik, Alaska at Fred Ipalook Elementary School just a short walk from the beach of the Arctic Ocean. I worked with two of the four sections of 5th graders, with Mr. and Mrs. Steven's classes.

Sarah explaining the Arctic sea ice motion vector map activity in Mrs. Steven's classroom at Fred Ipalook Elementary School.

While planning the 90 minute lesson I kept thinking about the similarities and differences of students at the Arctic Ocean compared to the thousands of students I have worked with over the years in Colorado. I guessed they would be similar. Most 10 year olds are like other 10 year olds with lots of energy, curiosity, and typical kid behavior. I was correct.

Yet, their reference points and contexts were different as I expected. It was really neat to hear from them how they relate to weather patterns, sea ice, and the Arctic Ocean in general.

Sarah asking a student to repeat their answer when asking them about how they related to weather patterns and Arctic sea ice.

The lesson started with asking students to describe how they relate to weather, why it matters to them, and how it affects them everyday. Some of the various answers and input from the students included their concern with freezing building pipes, having proper cold weather gear and clothing to avoid getting sick, weather affecting wildlife patterns and hunting success, and overall freezing temperatures.

Next, the students were asked to think about their relationship with the sea ice. Their responses included their concerns about the strength of the landfast ice for whaling (they hunt whales from the landfast ice and slaughter them on the ice edge before bringing the meat and all the useable parts home for the community), melting ice and sea level rise, breaking whaling trails through the ice to the edge of the open water (open lead), the wind blowing the ice away, overall melting ice, and coastal erosion.

These reference points and context are definitely unique to Arctic kids. Colorado kids are not often mentioning these relationships and concerns to sea ice. It was impactful to me to learn from the kids and the teachers throughout this lesson and better understand their landscape and relationship to it.

Mr. Stevens helping explain a polar projection map to a student using the globe and the map together.

The lesson continued with the students exploring polar project maps using inquiry prompts from the Library of Congress exploring primary sources education tools, personalizing their laminated maps with markers marking their own places of interest.

Sarah converses with a student as they explored their polar projection map.
Sarah assisting a student with the sea ice motion vector map activity.

Then using the a vector map of sea ice movement, students searched for patterns and connecting the vectors together began to identify the main Arctic surface currents:

  • Beaufort Gyre - a rotating current off the north coast of Canada and Alaska

  • Transpolar Drift - the main current that moves across the Arctic Ocean from Siberia to Greenland

  • Labrador Current - a strong current that flows south between Greenland and Canada

  • East Greenland Current - current that flows south along the eastern side of Greenland

Specifically the Beaufort Gyre was focused on as they live so close to the Beaufort Sea that is just north of Point Barrow.

Students linking sea ice motion vectors together to create the ocean currents.
Sarah explaining the Beaufort Gyre (blue arrows north of Alaska) that rotates clockwise north of Point Barrow in addition to the other main Arctic currents.

The students also learned about Arctic buoys that collect weather data daily and help scientists track sea ice.

Sarah explaining the inner works of an Arctic buoy and its electronic sensors.

Then the lesson had students applying their understanding of the Arctic currents, the role of Arctic buoys, and the importance of long lasting transmission of buoys from the various reaches of the Arctic to creating suggestions for where they thought the scientists should deploy buoys. Students marked ideal deployment locations within the Arctic Ocean on the polar maps as well as the vehicle necessary to make it happen (snowmobile, very large plane, icebreaker, helicopter, or something else).

Student suggesting buoy deployment by plane north of Alaska in the Beaufort Gyre.
A student's buoy deployment suggestion across the Arctic ocean with the use of an icebreaker ship.

Finally, at the end of the lesson, the students were invited to reconsider their own personal concerns about weather and sea ice and make suggestions for what the buoys should be observing and measuring along with any necessary environmental observation instrumentation. Their suggestions included:

  • wildlife cameras to better understand where various marine animals are

  • environmental sensors to monitor sea levels

  • meteorology tools to observe and measure wind and storms

  • a sea grid to understand movement better

  • seismic sensors

  • measuring salt content

  • taking water temperatures

  • ocean wave activity

These ideas are so in line with what the Arctic research and science community is currently observing and monitoring. Perhaps the scientists have listened and heard these ideas before from local Inuit people around the Arctic Circle and integrated their suggestions. Or, maybe the students appreciate being affirmed that their ideas and suggestions are right on par with so many other community observers, scientists, and researcher investigators. Maybe it is a bit of both. And maybe, one day in the not so distant future these kids will have active roles in monitoring the Arctic Ocean systems and all its complexity.

I left them with small Float Your Boat wooden boats to be decorated. They completed them with bright colors of paint and we deployed them on April 4, 2023.


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