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2018 Alaska Field Trip: Learning about the Environmental Issues Facing the Arctic

2018 Alaska Field Trip: Learning about the Environmental Issues Facing the Arctic

Beth Short & Binyu Yang
The George Washington University

In June 2018, three educational researchers, Beth Short, Binyu Yang, and Mary Ellen Wolfinger from the George Washington University’s Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy traveled to Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska to meet with community members about involving urban Alaskan youth in the digital environmental storytelling project #60above60.

#60above60 is part of an interdisciplinary and international project focused on urban sustainability in the Arctic, funded by the National Science Foundation Arctic Program for International Research and Education (PIRE). The goal of #60above60 is to enhance students' perspectives of urban life and sustainability issues. To meet this goal, partnerships are established among schools in the Washington, DC metropolitan area and in cities across the Arctic to create and exchange digital 60-second environmental stories. In #60above60, students (1) explore city life and environmental challenges, (2) think critically about urban sustainability, (3) investigate solutions to environmental problems, and (4) consider environmental issues from a global perspective.

During the site visit to Alaska, GW-based researchers met with a range of educators and leaders from several community organizations to discuss some of the Arctic’s most pressing environmental issues and the ways in which education is seeking to address these issues. According to Allison Barnwell, the Program Coordinator for the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA), the teens she works with have identified single-use plastics as a leading concern for Alaskans and the Alaskan ecosystem.

During the meeting with Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT), GW researchers learned that Arctic communities are disproportionately impacted by chemical contamination due to ocean and wind currents. According to the ACAT and the World Wildlife Foundation, when pollutants reach the Arctic, polar ice traps contaminants that are then gradually released into the environment during melting periods. In the current era of a warming Arctic, this process has resulted in the Arctic becoming a global chemical sink.

Also in Anchorage, the GW team met with staff of the organization Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP). The #60above60 and the ANSEP are developing a partnership to elevate students’ voices and to empower the youth to further develop a desire for action in their local communities.

In addition to meeting with several community organizations and schools in Anchorage, GW educational researchers met with faculty and staff at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks (UAF). Those meetings included an interview with atmospheric chemistry researcher, Dr. Jingqiu Mao, to learn about UAF’s recent study (ALPACA Project) of how air pollution acts in cold, dark atmospheric conditions. The winter air quality in Fairbanks is of significant national concern, as it is the worst air quality in the United States. However, according to Dr. Mao, the chemical processes which make winter air so poor are yet unknown, and the subject of their ongoing research.

Additionally, the #60above60 team met with UAF ecologist and educational researcher, Dr. Katie Spellman, to learn about her ongoing work studying Arctic berries. According to Dr. Spellman, berries play a vital role in sustaining Arctic human and animal populations during the North’s long, cold winters. However, over the past decade, plant life cycles are changing in response to the warming Arctic. Dr. Spellman’s Winterberry Project is researching the impact those changes may have on berries in the far North.  

The biggest takeaway from this recent trip to Alaska: Anthropogenic activity is having a direct and immediate impact on Arctic communities, both urban and rural. In rural Alaska, sea ice loss is making survival increasingly dangerous and difficult for Northern communities that rely on subsistence hunting, and shrinking islands are disappearing as sea levels rise. In urban Alaska, residents are experiencing heightened health risks and asthma rates in Fairbanks due to poor air quality, and across the Arctic residents are exposed to pollutants and toxins from around the globe. The Arctic is our canary in the coal mine, and this trip has made clear the tremendous stress the Arctic environments are facing. Providing opportunities to create and exchange digital stories on the most crucial environmental problems of our time both above and below the 60th degree parallel is critical to helping young people better understand those problems and propose solutions.

Our belief is that having students participate in an authentic inquiry endeavor will boost their interest in STEM learning and careers. For more information about the #60above60 project, or to become involved in our 2018-2019 school year’s project, please feel free to contact Beth Short at bshort@gwu.edu, follow @60above60 on Twitter, look through #60above60 Inquiry Letter, or visit the project website to learn more!