A UArizona researcher partners in a project that will allow students to practically explore the Arctic

Northern Arizona University and University Communications


The Polar Explorer project will allow students to explore structures such as this cross section of Arctic thermocarstic terrain using “virtual exits”.
Victor O. Leshyk, Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, NAU

The National Science Foundation has awarded nearly $ 2 million to a team of researchers, including one from the University of Arizona, to develop a virtual reality teaching tool called Polar Explorer: A Virtual Learning Environment for Polar Science Education . This web-based immersive environment will allow undergraduate students to explore polar environments in the Arctic and learn about permafrost from their laptops, desktops, or mobile devices.

“The transformation of the Arctic in real time affects everyone, but most of us can’t travel there to witness these changes,” said lead researcher Deborah Huntzinger, an associate professor at the School of Earth and Sustainability of the University of Northern Arizona. “Polar Explorer will delve deeper into students by thawing the permafrost and reaching the shores of the Arctic coast to learn how the region is changing in an immersive and accessible way.”

Lisa Thompson

Lisa Thompson

Principal co-researcher of the project Lisa Thompson, a scientific researcher at the Arizona Geological Survey at the University of Arizona, will help design the way students will interact with the data and solve problems in their lessons.

“We will have to think about how the lessons will be designed, what data will be presented and in what order, how students should proceed to solve problems, etc.,” he said. “At the end of the project, I will help train teachers to deploy Polar Explorer in college courses at NAU and finally at other institutions.”

Huntzinger and Thompson will work with co-researcher Michelle Mack and artist Victor Leshyk, both of NAU, as well as researchers Ariel Anbar and Chris Mead of Arizona State University and Kevin Schaefer of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The team is concentrating on the Arctic because warming is changing this region rapidly so it is affecting the climate, infrastructure and public health around the world. Over the past three decades, the Arctic has warmed twice as much as the rest of the world and the permafrost has begun to thaw. Permafrost thawing releases huge amounts of previously frozen greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating the pace of climate change. Permafrost thawing can also threaten food security and clean drinking water, and can lead to landscape erosion, the collapse of buildings and roads, and an increased risk of forest fires.

These impacts make it important for the general public to understand how the Arctic is changing and why these changes have important consequences for people around the world, according to the researchers. But the remoteness and inaccessibility of the Arctic make teaching students about permafrost and its consequences difficult.

The team expects Polar Explorer to change that.

Using the virtual learning technology initiated by the Education Center through ASU’s eXploration, or ETX, students will be able to visit scientifically accurate landscapes and interact with them as if they were there physically, regardless of socioeconomic background, physical ability. or the student’s level of academic preparation. .

Polar Explorer will be an adaptive learning environment built around a series of immersive virtual outings. For example, to examine the connections between carbon and permafrost, students will virtually travel to the site of the Carbon of Permafrost Heating Experimental Research project in Healy, Alaska, where NAU researcher Ted Schuur has been studying the permafrost for over a decade. Starting at the hut where Schuur’s research team lives during the summer, students will hear howling the sled dogs in the neighborhood. At the site, they will measure carbon dioxide emissions, examine the output of carbon dioxide and temperature data in real time, and make other virtual measurements to compare permafrost thaw depths in heated plots against non-heated ones.

“Polar Explorer will put students on the ground, so they’re not only reading about the dramatic changes we’re seeing in the Arctic, they’re experiencing them,” said Schaefer, a researcher at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Pebble.

All students browsing Polar Explorer’s immersive virtual journeys will have a unique experience, receiving personalized feedback tailored to their needs as they work toward the same learning outcomes as their peers. The team, with the help of the NAU Science Teaching and Learning Center, will test Polar Explorer in NAU undergraduate courses before making it free and available to all college students with Internet access and a modern web browser.

“What’s particularly exciting about this project is the opportunity to study how immersive virtual outings help students learn difficult concepts, such as working at various scales and understanding transdisciplinary connections,” said Mead, an assistant researcher. of the ASU. “These skills are inherent in polar science and are absolutely critical in preparing students to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the need for results-oriented distance learning resources for teachers at all levels, and Polar Explorer helps meet that need, UArizona’s Thompson said.

“Intelligent tutoring systems have been tested in university science classes across the country and around the world,” he said. “We have the technology, and now is an important time to bring rapid Arctic change to students’ devices.”

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