Radford braves Alaska

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While many students enjoyed sunshine and seashores over spring break, a group of Radford University instructors and students endured the arctic chill of Barrow, Alaska as they conducted a two week expedition that merged the fields of geophysics and education.

The research expedition to Barrow is a biennial event that allows students studying science and education to practice their skills in a testing, endurance-building environment. This year’s trip was the fifth one conducted in the past 10 years.

Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States, is a stark, frigid environment that is covered in a layer of frozen desert most of the year. According to the trip’s web page, the average temperature only reaches 17 degrees.

The team based themselves out of a facility previously used by the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory. The trip was divided into two sections: geophysical research and education. The research team was led by Dr. Rhett Herman and Dan Blake from RU’s physics department. The education segment was facilitated by science education professor, Mythianne Shelton.

The team consisted of 13 RU students and two governor’s school students chosen from a list of applicants.

Herman pointed out the trip’s difference from a standard study abroad course. “This is a regular research class that involves real, honest-to-goodness, get your hands dirty actually cold and frozen research. It’s unique in that we go somewhere to work,” Herman said.

The research team conducted a series of tests throughout their stay to determine a correlation between the temperature of the surface of the sea ice and the thickness of the sea ice. They hypothesized that the thinner ice would be warmer than thick ice, due to its closer proximity to the warmer water below.

Battling the intense cold, the researchers collected data periodically throughout the day and analyzed their findings in the evenings.

Senior geology major Nicholas Aitcheson had many duties at the Barrow facility.

“Everyone shared many of the roles associated with our data collection. The parts of the survey I worked on were creating the grid for our survey lines, taking GPS data, pulling the OhmMapper and drilling depth data collection,” Aitcheson said.

Though they are still receiving and interpreting data, Herman said their initial findings do suggest that their hypothesis was correct.

The research team will present their findings at the American Geophysical Union Meeting in San Francisco. This event is a mass gathering of scientists from across the globe and is attended by prestigious figures in the scientific community, such as James Cameron and Al Gore.

While the research team conducted their tests and recorded data, Shelton’s education students reported on their trip and communicated with classrooms in Virginia and North Carolina through Skype.

This process was intended to create an environment where scientists and teachers worked together to convey their experience to a young audience, thereby serving both a scientific and a broader educational function that reached young students that were a four hour time difference away.

The educational team worked with students back east to give them a better understanding of what a scientist is and what they do. Shelton explained the misconception many young people have about science and scientists.

“We had them draw what they think a scientist looks like. They had the wild, crazy hair and some sort of eyewear. And they were mostly inside holding a beaker or an Erlenmeyer flask. That was interesting.” Their efforts helped remove this generic, typecast image.

Shelton and her students worked to help students understand the reality of one aspect of scientific study. She said, “The kids get to feel like they’re a part of what you’re doing.”

They also provided a cultural education on the Inupiat culture that still survives in Barrow. Shelton had her students speak with Barrow residents in order to help create  an understanding of life in Northern Alaska. “They get to be exposed to a totally different culture that most of them don’t know about,” she said.

The team’s undertaking of this trip is exceptionally unique; no other school in the surrounding states has a similar program. The trip allows students to experience and practice fieldwork in an environment drastically different from a classroom or lab while learning to work in conjunction with those in a different area of focus.

“The experience in general was a very positive one. Everyone was excited to be there and the energy levels showed that,” Aitcheson said.

Herman, Blake and Shelton are already making preparations for when they will return with a new group of students ready to brave the cold in 2016.