Students On Ice: Going To The Ends Of The Earth On Outdoor Education

Leaning on the railing of their 85-metre ship, a group huddles in jackets, hoods up, watching massive glaciers glide into focus. Ice floes dot the ocean where penguins swim effortlessly through icy waters. Suddenly, through thick fog loom the snow-capped mountains of Antarctica’s Elephant Island—the frigid outpost where 22 men from explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated HMS Endurance expedition sheltered for four months in 1916 before being rescued. Today however, the island is a classroom for the Students On Ice research program.

Since the first Students On Ice trip in 2000, the Canadian foundation has transported over 2,500 high school and university students and their mentors on annual ship-based expeditions to both the Arctic and the Antarctic, with the goal of educating youth on the importance of polar regions. Students—up to 30 per cent of them Arctic dwellers—gain educational credit, but it’s the unique expedition opportunities that carry most weight in their future.


Creating polar ambassadors one ice chunk at a time. Photo courtesy of Students on Ice.

“It was really where my career began,” says Tyler DeJong, an alumni of Antarctic 2009 and now a spatial analyst for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Whitehorse, Yukon, where he researches habitat changes in the Canadian Arctic. “That initial polar experience led directly to my current role.”

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The fully equipped oceanographic research vessels act as floating cafeteria, lecture hall and sleeping quarters for students and an eclectic mix of teaching staff that include First Nations elders, scientists, artists, authors and innovators from around the world. Students are challenged to consider how individual skills and interests can be employed to create positive environmental change in both their own countries and abroad. It’s this multidimensional approach to both science and critical thinking that makes the experience special.


Photo courtesy of Students on Ice.

“Communal living, where scientists and students share and explore a huge variety of topics, made the trip a great learning opportunity,” recalls Emilie-Jeanne Bercier, another Antarctic 2009 alumni. Now a Hydrometric Technologist for Environment & Climate Change Canada, the floodplains of Manitoba are Bercier’s office. “It was humbling, and at the same time empowering, to come together to learn about protecting a part of the Earth that is changing so dramatically.”

Dividing their time between ship activities and the surrounding glaciers, icebergs and islands, students immerse in cross-disciplinary activities that meld scientific theory and practice. On-the-ground workshops with geologists, zoologists, botanists and paleobiologists transport participants into the pages of virtual textbooks filled with everything from glacial physiography and ice formations, to ancient fossil-bearing rock and polar flora and fauna.


Photo courtesy of Students on Ice.

Trading lab coats for life jackets, students dip hands into polar seas, evaluating temperature and salinity for the effects of accelerated melt on ocean ecosystems; they could just as easily find themselves testing ice-core samples for pollutants before discussing international air-quality policies over dinner. The approach delivers students a deep toolkit of skills, creating environmentally responsible citizens and de facto polar ambassadors.

As echoed by DeJong and Bercier, listening to a lecture on polar melting with glaciers calving in the background gives such information new meaning. To see, hear and feel the changes taking place in the world’s polar regions is the type of knowledge that will travel home with students, inspiring them to action.

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