UArizona Researcher Partners on Project that Will Allow Students to Explore the Arctic Virtually

A view of the Polar Explorer interface

The Polar Explorer project will let students explore structures like this cross-section of Arctic thermokarst terrain via "virtual field trips."

Victor O. Leshyk, Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, NAU

The National Science Foundation has awarded nearly $2 million to a team of researchers, including one from the University of Arizona, to develop a virtual reality teaching tool called Polar Explorer: A Virtual  Learning Environment for Polar Science Education. This web-based, immersive environment will allow undergraduate students to explore polar environments in the Arctic and learn about permafrost from their laptops, desktops or mobile devices.

"The real-time transformation of the Arctic affects everyone, but most of us can't travel there to witness these changes," said principal investigator Deborah Huntzinger, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Sustainability at Northern Arizona University. "Polar Explorer will take students deep into thawing permafrost and to the edge of Arctic shorelines to learn about how the region is changing in an immersive, accessible way."

Lisa Thompson

Lisa Thompson

Project co-principal investigator Lisa Thompson, a research scientist with the Arizona Geological Survey at the University of Arizona, will help design the way in which students will interact with data and solve problems in their lessons.

"We'll need to think about how lessons will be designed, what data will be presented and in what order, how students should go about solving problems and so on," she said. "At the end of the project, I will help train faculty to deploy Polar Explorer in undergrad courses at NAU and eventually other institutions."

Huntzinger and Thompson will be working with co-principal investigator Michelle Mack and artist Victor Leshyk, both from NAU, as well as researchers Ariel Anbar and Chris Mead from Arizona State University and Kevin Schaefer from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The team is zeroing in on the Arctic because warming is altering this region rapidly in ways that affect climate, infrastructure and public health around the globe. Over the past three decades, the Arctic has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and permafrost has started to thaw. Thawing permafrost releases enormous amounts of previously frozen greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating the pace of climate change. Permafrost thaw can also threaten food security and clean drinking water, and can lead to the erosion of landscapes, the collapse of buildings and roads, and increased risk of wildfires.

These impacts make it important for the general public to understand how the Arctic is changing and why these changes have significant consequences for people around the world, the researchers say. But the remoteness and inaccessibility of the Arctic make teaching students about permafrost and its consequences challenging.

The team hopes Polar Explorer will change that.

Using virtual learning technology pioneered by ASU's Center for Education Through eXploration, or ETX, students will be able to visit scientifically accurate landscapes and interact with them as if they were physically there, regardless of a student's socioeconomic background, physical ability or level of academic preparation.

Polar Explorer will be an adaptive learning environment built around a series of immersive virtual field trips. For example, to examine the connections between carbon and permafrost, students will travel virtually to the Carbon in Permafrost Heating Experimental Research project site in Healy, Alaska, where NAU researcher Ted Schuur has been studying permafrost for over a decade. Starting in the cabin where Schuur's research team lives during the summer, students will hear neighborhood sled dogs howl. At the field site, they will measure carbon dioxide emissions, examine carbon dioxide and temperature data output in real time, and make other virtual measurements to compare permafrost thaw depths in plots that were warmed versus those that were not.

"Polar Explorer will put students in the field, so they are not just reading about the dramatic changes we observe in the Arctic, but experiencing them," said Schaefer, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Each student navigating the immersive virtual field trips within Polar Explorer will have a unique experience, receiving personalized feedback appropriate to their needs while working toward the same learning outcomes as their peers. The team, with help from NAU's Center for Science Teaching and Learning, will test Polar Explorer in undergraduate courses at NAU before making it free and available to all college-level students with access to the internet and a modern web browser.

"What's particularly exciting about this project is the opportunity to study how immersive virtual field trips help students to learn difficult concepts, such as working across multiple scales and understanding transdisciplinary connections," said Mead, an assistant research scientist at ASU. "These skills are inherent to polar science, and they are absolutely critical for preparing students to solve the challenges of the 21st century."

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the need for outcome-driven, distance learning resources for teachers at all levels, and Polar Explorer helps meet that need, UArizona's Thompson said.

"Intelligent tutoring systems have been tested in undergraduate science classes around the nation and world," she said. "We have the technology, and now is an important time to bring the rapidly changing Arctic to students' devices."


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