In the Field

Using the Polar Literacy Principles in Science Communication

Polar Literacy Principle #2 - Ice is the dominant feature of the Polar Regions © Andrew Corso
Polar Literacy Principle #2 - Ice is the dominant feature of the Polar Regions © Andrew Corso

By Janice McDonnell, Science Educator, Rutgers University 

In 2015, I had the opportunity to support a team of scientists working on the Long-term Ecological Research program (LTER for short) on their education and outreach efforts at Palmer Station Antarctica.   In addition to two Antarctic sites, the LTER program includes four long-term research sites in the Arctic. All of these programs focus on long-term data collection as a mechanism to understand these important ecosystems. As a marine educator, I was somewhat enchanted by the adventure of visiting these places, but considered them remote and somewhat disconnected from my daily life.

After working with this team of scientists, however, I learned how important these biomes or habitats are and how they are connected to people all over the planet.  These habitats serve a major role in regulating the Earth’s climate.  As the Polar Regions continue to warm (air, land, and ocean) the Earth’s climate, people all over the planet are feeling the impact. It is increasingly vital that every person on the planet becomes aware of this connection and the increasing fragility of the Earth system. 

The Polar Interdisciplinary Coordinated Education (Polar-ICE) program, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, set out to engage students in understanding how Polar Regions influence our lives through the research experiences, data, and stories of polar scientists. Our goal was to serve as a connection to students and educators to help understand these critical polar environments and the global climate system. 

To achieve these goals, Polar ICE focused on assisting polar scientists in communicating their research results. Over the course of the project, sixty-two polar scientists participated in science education and engagement activities, as well as enhance their skills in the art of telling science stories through workshops and programs.  We also wanted to create opportunities for educators and students to virtually get involved in polar research. Middle and high school educators connected their students with polar research and scientists through partnering with programs like the Monterey Bay Research Institute’s (MBARI’s) EARTH program. Polar ICE also designed educator workshops such as the Science-Investigator or Sci-I program.

NJ youth are working with polar scientists to learn about polar food webs. This young student is presenting online his understanding of the feeding behavior of Adelie penguins in Antarctica. © Christine Bean
NJ youth are working with polar scientists to learn about polar food webs. This young student is presenting online his understanding of the feeding behavior of Adelie penguins in Antarctica. © Christine Bean

Approximately half way through developing and implementing the activities, the need emerged for a unified set of messages about the Polar Regions that identify the “big ideas” all people should know about the Poles, the regions which regulate the Earth’s climate. Inspired by the Ocean Literacy initiative, we created a consensus document we call the Polar Literacy Key Concepts and Principles.  The Principles outline essential concepts to improve public understanding of these critical and sensitive ecosystems.  They address ideas like the geographic uniqueness of the Poles (#1); ice as the dominant feature (#2); their central role in regulating Earth’s weather and climate (#3); the productivity of the food webs (#4); focal points for measuring the effects of climate change (#5); the importance of humans as part of the ecosystem (#6); and the importance of new technologies to expand our understanding of these important habitats  (#7). 

We hope that educators will consider adopting these Principles to frame lessons and activities pertaining to teaching about the Poles. We also hope polar scientists will use the principles to craft their science communication strategies when they talk about their experiences in these wondrous environments.  

 In our newest funded project, we are working on engaging young people in Out of School Time (OST) settings such as after school clubs and youth development programs like 4-H, to learn about these amazing places.  We invite them to pack their virtual bags and learn about the Polar Region through the eyes of a polar scientist.  The Polar Literacy Principles serve as our checklist of important things to know and understand about the Polar Regions as an informed citizen of this planet. Our hope is that we can continue to shine a light on these critical regions of the Earth.

Adelie penguins of Antarctica are part of productive food webs (Principle #4) © Dr. Oscar Schofield.
Adelie penguins of Antarctica are part of productive food webs (Principle #4) © Dr. Oscar Schofield.

Janice McDonnell is the Science Agent in the Department of Youth Development at Rutgers University where she focuses on developing and implementing high quality STEM programs for young people.  As part of Rutgers Cooperative Extension, the department of youth development focuses on providing experiences where young people learn by doing. Kids complete hands-on projects in areas like health, science, and citizenship, in a positive environment where they receive guidance from adult mentors and are encouraged to take on proactive leadership roles. 

Janice’s background is in marine sciences and has been a marine science educator in the Department of Marine & Coastal Sciences for twenty-five years. For ten years (2002-2012), she was the lead Investigator for the National Science Foundation’s Centers for Ocean Science Education Excellence Networked Ocean World (COSEE- NOW), where the goal was to help scientists and educators work together to better communicate with others about the ocean through a data science lens.