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

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 the Anchorage and Fairbanks, AK to meet with community members about involving urban Alaskan youth in the digital environmental storytelling project #60above60

During the site visit to AK, 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 the 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, they 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. Please click here for more publications and works of the ACAT. 

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, AK, 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 of how air pollution acts in cold, dark atmospheric conditions. Fairbanks’ winter air quality 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. Please click here for more information about Dr. Jingqiu Mao’s Alaskan Pollution and Chemical Analysis (ALPACA) Project.

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’ Winterberry Project researching the impact those changes may have on berries in the far North. Please watch Dr. Spellman’ Digital Environmental Video in her Fairbanks research site to learn more about her amazing works and projects! 

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, the 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 involvedin 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!

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