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NDSU researchers phone home to young scientists 9,000 miles away

by Carol Renner

Posted on 12/3/2010

Ben Franklin students
Fargo's Ben Franklin students Skype with NDSU researchers
Forget Santa and the North Pole. For a group of 8th graders, the real deal this winter is a team of North Dakota State University research scientists working on the earth's southernmost and coldest continent of Antarctica, which includes the South Pole.

This week 140 students from Ben Franklin Middle School in Fargo met with NDSU researchers through a live Skype Internet video call that connects the young scientists to NDSU student and faculty researchers in the field 9,000 miles away at McMurdo Station, the U.S. National Science Foundation's base of Antarctic operations. The two groups have been collaborating on a learning project since late October, tethering real life research results to in-classroom projects with middle school teacher Barry Olson, a national Milken Educator Award recipient who teaches earth science and space science.

NDSU's research team includes geology undergraduate students Michael Ginsbach from Hankinson, N.D., Chad Crotty of Elk River, Minn., Alex Smith, graduate student in environmental and conservation sciences from Apple Valley, Minn., Allan Ashworth, distinguished professor of geosciences, and Adam Lewis, assistant professor of geosciences.

During calls from Antarctica, students learn about collection and analyses of scientific samples such as fossils and volcanic ash collected by the NDSU researchers. In their classroom, the science students work on geologic projects, atmospheric studies and more. By teaming with NDSU researchers in the field, the students experience science beyond textbooks, exposing them to real-world research and science-based careers. The two groups will follow up with each other on project-related work next spring.

During the live video call on Dec. 1, eighth grader Marydith Poitra, who is interested in chemistry and biology, began a series of 30 questions asked by students. Questions varied from global warming to what it's like for the scientists out in the field who can't shower for weeks on end. The items eliciting the most response were a blend of scientific and human topics.

Veteran Antarctic researcher Dr. Allan Ashworth told students he discovered his first fossil on the continent 15 years ago, and more recently, found fossilized ostracods that received worldwide scientific attention.

What drew the biggest response from students, however, occurred when Ashworth noted he discovered fossils that are millions of years old before any of them were born. "How old are you?" asked one student. "I am a fossil," joked Ashworth, eliciting enthusiastic applause from students.

Eighth grader R.J. Garcia noted that the environment of Antarctica is a totally different place. "Many of the things in the South Pole affect us," he said and asked the scientists about discoveries that might be related to global warming. Both Ashworth and Dr. Adam Lewis said that changes are often nearly imperceptible, highlighting the importance of continued long-term research in Antarctica. Meteorites, volcanoes, ultraviolet rays, atmospheric science and working in 24-hour sunlight were also among the students' areas of interest.

The NDSU team's field work is located in a helicopter-supported tent camp in the Dry Valleys region and Oliver Bluffs, some 300 miles from the South Pole. Dr. Adam Lewis explained to students that glacial deposits have stories to tell because they leave behind clues as to the earth's climate millions of years ago. The North Dakota students are personally familiar with at least one aspect of Antarctica. "North Dakota blizzards are just as dangerous as Antarctic blizzards. You have to be careful," said Lewis, mentioning a recent 31 degrees below zero temperature experienced by the research team, who were outfitted with cold weather gear that included specialized mountaineering boots from Scheels of Fargo.

Middle school teacher Barry Olson sees this partnership with NDSU geoscientists as a way to show students opportunities for a future in scientific research. "My students are looking at the weather and climate and then also looking at the volcanic ash and some of the plants and fossils the research team has been able to find in their expedition," said Olson.

Students also learned about the types of work people do on the continent, from scientific researchers to computer specialists, construction workers, electricians, doctors and dentists, and cooks and drivers. "I also want to show them what it's like to survive and prepare for a two-month trip out in the field," said Olson, noting that long supply routes complicate logistics when the terrain includes glacier ice, loose rocky soils and near-vertical cliff faces. "You can't just run out and pick something up at Wal-Mart if you forget it," said Olson.

Even scientists need an occasional break and the NDSU team told students they played football with an all-weather ball sent by grad student Alex Smith's wife, Lisa, who surprised the team by attending the video call. With sporadic communications available during the two-month trip, a quick conversation between the young couple elicited a supportive "Aawwwww," in unison from their junior high audience.

NDSU research team members are expected to return at various times through December and may be conferencing again via satellite phone with their junior high counterparts the week of December 13.

At least one member of the NDSU Antarctic research team will continue his adventure upon returning from the ice. NDSU geology and education major Michael Ginsbach, Hankinson, N.D., begins student teaching the same group of junior high students he's been communicating with from Antarctica. He'll be the new student teacher in Mr. Olson's class beginning in January 2011.

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