MiddleSchoolPortal/Science and the Polar Regions

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Science and the Polar Regions - Introduction

If there really is a pole at the North Pole, I bet there's some dead explorer-guy with his tongue stuck to it. — Bob Van Voris

No, Bob Van Voris is not a polar explorer, but he can get a young person’s attention with this line! For the real deal, check out explorers Robert Peary, Robert Falcon Scott, and Richard E. Byrd. Polar science is a topic both your students and you can get into. This publication gives you a variety of angles to choose from in implementing a study of polar science.

Polar exploration has an intriguing, sometimes sad, and brutal history. The most fundamental motivation of early explorers may have been "Because it's there." But what are the current motivations? Human curiosity is certainly still a motivator. Another is that the poles have been likened to the “canary in the mine shaft”. (Miners once used the sensitive birds to detect toxic gases in air.) Whereas the canary’s fate signaled the condition of the mine, the poles signal the condition of the earth. You can facilitate student discovery of this theme through engagement with the resources provided here.

Many children come to school with a fascination for the polar regions. One reason for this might be related to their associating the North Pole with Santa Claus. Another might be the images they have encountered in the media, especially in movies such as March of the Penguins and 8 Below. Thus, student interest may already be there, and capitalizing on it to enhance understanding of any of the content domains of the National Science Education Standards is an easy transition.



On the face of it, polar science is necessarily earth science and thus aligned with the National Science Education Standards Earth and Space Science Content Standard D. But it certainly does not end there. All other content standards align with a study of polar science, including Science and Technology; Life and Physical Sciences; History and Nature of Science; and, perhaps especially, Personal and Social Perspectives.

We know you may not have six weeks to spend on a single topic, so we've created sections that can stand alone. These include background information for teachers, visualizing the poles, physical attributes of the poles, biology at the poles, environmental issues and current research projects related to polar science, and of course links to the standards.

Pedagogically speaking, students will need support, first, in accurately visualizing the location of the poles relative to the rest of the earth and, second, in distinguishing between the North and South Poles. Resources provided under Visualizing the Poles and Physical Attributes of the Poles are designed to help teachers meet this need. In addition, students need some understanding of climate and weather, biological and ecological systems, and populations and communities. Here are some publications from the National Science Digital Library Middle School Portal that may be of assistance:

Background Information for Teachers

In this section, we link you to the official site of the International Polar Year (IPY), magazine articles, and a peer-reviewed blog about the polar regions directed at elementary school teachers. From these resources, we believe you can get a better sense of not only the scientific aspects but also the social, economic, political, and cultural angles of the polar regions. You might want to check out the Lonely Planet Travel Guide: Antarctica as an additional resource. Armed with this information, you will be well positioned to make decisions regarding how you want to lead your students through a study of polar science and which particular aspects of polar science are most relevant to your context.

First let's get some perspective on the various topics and related concepts by looking at the the NSDL Strand Map Service. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Models map appears below (because we use models--globes--to help students visualize relative positions of the poles). This map is one of five under the heading Common Themes. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. You might also be interested in looking at the and Climate Mapand/or the Interdependence of Life.

International Polar Year 2007-2008 : explore and learn This page provides links to new polar research as it is reported. You may want to check it once a week, or allow students to, and have them give an update; What's happening now? Why is it important, or is it? Who's involved?

Another one bytes the slush Elizabeth Grossman reviews Charles Wohlforth's The Whale and the Supercomputer which compares views of climate change: those of the outsider-scientist and those of the insider, the Inuit. This book raises awareness of the intersection of culture and science.

Heat from Earth's magma contributing to melting of Greenland ice An article from ScienceDaily reminds us that nature also plays a role in the melting of ice sheets, in addition to anthropogenic forces.

Beyond polar bears and penguins : polar news and notes Antarctic tourism This peer-reviewed blog entry provides statistics and information regarding ecotourism in the Antarctic. Ecotourism is a double-edged sword: It provides a forum to educate humans regarding their impact on the planet, while simultaneously and necessarily increasing human environmental impact.

Mapping the polar regions This peer-reviewed blog entry distinguishes between the two poles and provides resources for teachers to facilitate student conceptual understanding of the differences. Though the blog is targeted to elementary teachers, middle school teachers will find readily useful resources that can be easily adapted to the middle school level.

Where does the Arctic begin? end? This peer-reviewed blog entry describes six accepted ways of defining the Arctic. Each is accompanied by a hotlinked, thumbnail map image. Additional related teaching resources are provided.

The ozone hole tour An important line of ongoing research in polar science deals with ozone. This comprehensive, well-organized tutorial allows you to brush up on your content knowledge regarding ozone, its importance to the planet, and its relationship to the poles. You may find parts of this tutorial suitable to present to your students.

Antarctica as an Educational Resource This page provides good information across many taxa of the Antarctic. It will remind you to steer your students’ attention not only toward the keystone species, such as penguins, but to other levels of the food web as well.

Visualizing the Polar Regions

Middle school students are transitioning from concrete to abstract thinkers. The concept of Earth's poles is an abstraction. Bridging from the concrete, familiar to the abstract, unfamiliar is necessary. These resources facilitate student understanding of the relative position of Earth’s poles.

Activity 1: Make an Earth In this activity, students construct their own model of Earth. Why bother when students can be presented with a commercially prepared model? By plotting the latitudes and longitudes themselves, students stand a better chance of retaining what they learn regarding how we visualize Earth. In addition, through completion of the model building activity, students gain experience in moving from 2-D to 3-D images and back again — helpful in developing abstract-thinking skills. Consider adapting the activity and have students draw the Antarctic land mass, while noting the lack of land mass at the North Pole. Mapping the Arctic Circle instead might be useful. Their model can be a reference throughout their study of polar science.

National Geophysical Data Center : relief globe slides This resource from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allows you to choose a view of the earth and then see the relative elevations captured in the view. Use in conjunction with the earth-modeling activity to enhance student visualization of the poles.

Atlas of the Cyrosphere View dynamic maps of snow, sea ice, glaciers, ice sheets, permafrost, and more. First, choose which hemisphere you want to view. After that, choose the zoom level from the left navigation bar. Choose the features you want in your view from the right. For example, when viewing the Northern Hemisphere, you might zoom to the level of the Arctic Circle and choose to have cities labeled and the prime meridian and glaciers indicated. This tool can be explored by students independently, or you may use it for whole-class presentations to assist students in visualizing the poles and how they differ geographically.

Physical Attributes

Resources in this section highlight the physical attributes of each of the poles, and enable student comparison and contrast between the poles. At the same time students will gain an understanding of the aims of polar science: (a) to reconstruct past earth history, (b) to understand the dynamics of earth science, and (c) to predict future earth science trends. Resources in this section connect to National Science Education Standards content standards of Science as Inquiry, Physical Science, Earth and Space Science, and Science and Technology.

The South Pole: Antarctica

On the trail of the missing ozone : causes, effects, and solutions to ozone depletion This free, online book provides an introduction to why we need the ozone layer, the causes of ozone depletion, and some of the actions the world is taking to correct the problem.

The ups and downs of ozone This activity requires students to use data from tables to draw graphs and to interpret the graphed data in order to understand how chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) damage the ozone layer. It also includes a link to an animation of how CFCs damage ozone.

Antarctica climate and data graphs This page contains a small map of Antarctica and a graph of average temperatures of four points in Antarctica as well as three cities on other continents — New York, Sydney, and London — for comparison. Facilitate student discussion by having students verbalize their interpretations of the data. What is the graph telling us? Why are some lines forming a mound, while others form a dip? What is the significance of lines below the central horizontal axis and those above it? How do these graphed lines relate to students' earth models? Who would use this data and for what?

Antarctic Weather This page contains weather data among other useful information. A concise explanation for the extreme cold of Antarctica is presented. Live weather data from any of 14 stations is available in the right margin. Also available is a wind chill calculator and a temperature conversion tool.

Annual Sea Ice Imagery This series of 12 enhanced satellite images shows how the ice grows in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter and shrinks during its summer. The same 12 images constitute the animation featured in the resource below.

Changes in Ice Concentration Animation The amount of sea ice surrounding Antarctica varies on a seasonal basis and depends on the amount of sunlight reaching the continent. The animation shows the change in ice cover around Antarctica during 1991. After watching the seasonal variation, you and your students can use an online tool to calculate the following: What percent of the continent is permanently covered in ice? How many square miles does the ice cover at its peak? Learn how to use the online tool with students to make these calculations at

The North Pole: The Arctic

It may appear that the resources for the North Pole are not equivalent to those presented for the South Pole. To a degree that is correct and is due to the fact that the North Pole is a sea rather than a land mass. However, the resources here will allow you and your students to become familiar with the climate, weather, and geography of the area.

Arctic Region This is a colorful political map centered on the North Pole. Lines of latitude and longitude are shown. It reinforces the fact that the North Pole lacks a land mass.

Arctic Climatology and Meteorology Primer for Newcomers to the North This is a nicely organized tutorial with sections titled: Basics of Arctic Weather, Factors Affecting Arctic Weather and Climate, Artic Weather Patterns. Each section is further subdivided and easily navigated via the left navigation bar.

Live from the North Pole! This page contains information and images obtained from three webcams stationed at the North Pole. Since sunlight is largely unavailable in the winter, images are limited to spring and summer months.

Biology and Ecology

Students often have misconceptions regarding which polar animals live where, and they sometimes perceive the poles as lifeless. desolate places. Resources in this section will help you turn your students on to the amazing biology and ecology of the polar regions.

Life in the cold and dark This lesson contains two activities, The Blubber Glove and Create a New "Antarctic Adaptable."

Blue planet: frozen seas This activity has students research a poster presentation regarding either an Arctic or Antarctic organism. The lesson includes whole-class discussion as well as individual student research. Web sites are provided for student research.

Polar-palooza: background soundscapes Toward the bottom of the page, click on the link of your choice: Adelie Penguins, Calving Glacier Ice, Elephant Seals, Emperor Penguins, Weddell Seals.

Polar bears international Here you will find intriguing interviews with researchers regarding the life and times of polar bears. Consider previewing an interview and developing a couple of questions for your students, which you can present as a hook before playing the interview segment. Alternatively, students could be assigned to listen to a given interview and report what they learned, what was most surprising, and what they want to know more about and why.

Research Projects and Environmental Issues

In this section we link you to some research projects. You can involve your students on a variety of levels, from analyzing data to communicating with polar scientists to discussions of the research goals and methods to raising questions regarding new lines of research.

To the Ends of the Earth : Research in Polar Seas This lesson might be a good introduction to polar science. In this lesson students discover the differences between Arctic and Antarctic terrains, learn the hardships imposed on polar explorers by climate and terrain, and explain how modern technologies have expedited polar exploration. According to the lesson plan, the teacher will read the opening and overview to the class and initiate a discussion about the hardships inherent in polar exploration. The students will then explore web sites about famous expeditions to the North and South Poles, work in small groups to study a specific journey, and brainstorm about what they would need to do to prepare for such a journey. As an extension, students can research modern-day exploration of the poles to learn what is left to discover.

Why and how scientists study climate change in the Arctic This article provides good information, with some illustrations and links to other resources, but is not necessarily an easy read for most middle schoolers. Perhaps a guided reading and thinking exercise, or a paired reading activity, would be appropriate.

Teaching Box : Global Ups and Downs, Changing Sea Level This instructional unit, called a "teaching box," contains six lessons: consequences of global warming; experimenting with ice melt; glacial evidence; fossil evidence; impacts of topography; and impacts on ecosystems. The lessons can be done in sequence, or each can stand alone as a complement to your other lessons.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related science-focused virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities.


The FunWorks

Visit the FunWorks STEM career website for youth to browse science-related careers, including meteorologist, environmental scientist, and marine biologist.

Latest Science News from the New York Times

NYT > Ice

News about Ice, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

NYT > Penguins

News about Penguins, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

National Science Education Standards

The beauty of a unit in polar science is the flexibility it allows. All the major content areas of the National Science Education Standards are included. We highlight a few in this section:

Earth and Space Science Content Standard D

Structure of the Earth System

  • Global patterns of atmospheric movement influence local weather. Oceans have a major effect on climate, because water in the oceans holds a large amount of heat.

Earth's History

  • The earth processes we see today, including erosion, movement of lithospheric plates, and changes in atmospheric composition, are similar to those that occurred in the past. Earth history is also influenced by occasional catastrophes, such as the impact of an asteroid or comet.

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives Content Standard F

Natural Hazards

  • Human activities also can induce hazards through resource acquisition, urban growth, land-use decisions, and waste disposal. Such activities can accelerate many natural changes.
  • Natural hazards can present personal and societal challenges because misidentifying the change or incorrectly estimating the rate and scale of change may result in either too little attention and significant human costs or too much cost for unneeded preventive measures.

Science and Technology in Society

  • Science influences society through its knowledge and world view. Scientific knowledge and the procedures used by scientists influence the way many individuals in society think about themselves, others, and the environment. The effect of science on society is neither entirely beneficial nor entirely detrimental.
  • Societal challenges often inspire questions for scientific research, and social priorities often influence research priorities through the availability of funding for research.

History and Nature of Science Content Standard G

Science as a Human Endeavor

  • Women and men of various social and ethnic backgrounds — and with diverse interests, talents, qualities, and motivations — engage in the activities of science, engineering, and related fields such as the health professions. Some scientists work in teams, and some work alone, but all communicate extensively with others.
  • Science requires different abilities, depending on such factors as the field of study and type of inquiry. Science is very much a human endeavor, and the work of science relies on basic human qualities, such as reasoning, insight, energy, skill, and creativity — as well as on scientific habits of mind, such as intellectual honesty, tolerance of ambiguity, skepticism, and openness to new ideas.

Nature of Science

  • Scientists formulate and test their explanations of nature using observation, experiments, and theoretical and mathematical models. Although all scientific ideas are tentative and subject to change and improvement in principle, for most major ideas in science, there is much experimental and observational confirmation. Those ideas are not likely to change greatly in the future. Scientists do and have changed their ideas about nature when they encounter new experimental evidence that does not match their existing explanations.

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Author and Copyright

Mary LeFever is a resource specialist for the Middle School Portal 2: Math & Science Pathways project, a doctoral candidate in science education at Ohio State University, and presently teaches introductory biology at a Columbus, Ohio local high school. She has taught middle school and high school science and is an adjunct instructor of biology and natural sciences at Columbus State Community College.

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Copyright March 2008 - The Ohio State University. Last updated August 22, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0424671 and since September 1, 2009 Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.