Eco-explorers learn to go with the floe

10th August 2007 at 01:00

A teacher and a pupil from Lochgilphead High will spend 10 days monitoring the Arctic as part of International Polar Year. Sue Leonard reports

HELEN MACKIE headed off for the summer holidays with more to look forward to than just six weeks away from her desk. The biology teacher has found out that she and one of her pupils at Lochgilphead High will be taking part in an expedition to the Arctic.

The 10-day trip around the northern shore of Canada aboard a research cruise ship is one of the major events taking place to mark International Polar Year.

The school was selected after responding to an invitation to apply for a place on the expedition by scientists at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, a partner in the Canadian project Schools on Board. International Polar Year, which began in March and runs until 2009, aims to in-spire and inform a new generation of young scientists.

"It's an out-of-this-world opportunity," says Mrs Mackie, the delight clear in her voice. "It's a dream. It will be so exciting. I have always wanted to experience the very north of Canada."

The search for a school to take part was restricted to Argyll and Bute for logistical reasons and attracted just two applications. So in March 2008, Lochgilphead will join eight high schools from Canada and eight international secondary schools taking part.

Mrs Mackie entered without telling the pupils so as not to disappoint them if the school was not selected. Now more than 40 pupils in S5-6, who are studying the sciences or geography, will have to compete for a place on board. They have to write an essay over the summer on why they want to go.

Information about the Arctic and its role in monitoring climate change will be worked into subjects across the curriculum from geography and biology to chemistry and social education. A blog will also run during the trip, available not just to pupils and teachers in Lochgilphead High, but to schools across Scotland.

One of the key areas to winning was how the school would share its unique experience in the "field" with the rest of the school and others across Scotland. "It's not a jolly," says Finlo Cottier, a polar oceanographer based at SAMS. "A big slice of International Polar Year is education."

Over the next two years, 1,000 scientists from 60 nations, including SAMS, will take part in 200 projects to learn new and exciting details about the Arctic and Ant-arctic regions and monitor how the poles are changing. The Arctic is undergoing dramatic change with air temperatures in January up to 20 degrees warmer in parts than the 50-year mean. Changes in the sea ice are a visible manifestation of the effect that rising air and water temperatures are having.

Scientists predict that in the next 50 to 80 years, the Arctic Ocean could be virtually ice-free in the summer. The removal of this insulating blanket means the ocean will absorb more of the sun's energy, which will in turn affect all forms of marine life. If there is almost complete loss of summer ice, some experts warn that polar bears may not survive as a species.

The Scottish representatives on the expedition will be able to witness the impact of climate change first-hand. During the trip, scientists will be testing samples of ice and water and will work around the clock, since nature does not sleep.

For Mrs Mackie it's a chance to put the science back into the debate on climate change: "I just think we have reached the stage that there is so much on telly that we become complacent about it. It has become a political issue, which is not helpful. We have all these cliches. We have got to the point where the kids are past believing."

Eye-witness accounts of what is happening might focus minds on the hard facts, which is why it's not the polar bears, harped seals or caribou that the ecologist is looking forward to seeing most.

"It is the small stuff, all the tiny changes that are affecting us," she says. "It's the food chain things. The big stuff is wonderful but it does not grab me anywhere near as much as the minute. I'm a botanist. I am always looking at the details of things. Where my husband takes half an hour to walk up a mountain, I take two hours because there is too much to see."

Scientists at SAMS, who will be offering scientific and practical support to Mrs Mackie, hope that the expedition will have a long-term effect on pupils across the school and beyond. "This experience may enthuse some pupils to pursue science and to see it as more than a series of experiments in the school laboratory," says Dr Cottier.

"It might encourage pupils to get more involved in local environmental projects and it might encourage parents to be more interested too. We want schools to be aware of how interesting science of the marine environment is how hands-on it is, how much opportunity there is for travel, adventure and excitement."

His interest in the polar region came from reading a book about British explorer Ernest Shackle- ton when he was 15. Having travelled to the Arctic and Antarc-tic, Dr Cottier has fulfilled his schoolboy ambition.

Dr Cottier is one of more than 60 scientists based at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, which is tucked away on the shores of Dunstaffnage Bay, three miles north of Oban. Little known outside the Argyll and Bute region, this internationally renowned sea research laboratory is involved in globally important issues, from climate change to renewable energy and the sustainability of the marine environment. The work includes monitoring harmful algae blooms which can cause deadly food poisoning, exploring the use of seaweed as a bio-fuel, and teaching undergraduates on the unique marine science degree.

This remote science research centre is one of Scotland's untap-ped treasures. With Scotland boasting 60 per cent of the UK coastline and 70 per cent of Scots living within 10km of the sea, the research going on here is relevant to everyone in Scotland.

The centre works with primary and secondary schools in the area through open days and visits. "We interact with about 750 or so kids in primary usually P5 7," says An-uschka Miller, activities manager.

A favourite activity is to dress up as sea life, such as plankton or a whale. Pupils can also see live sea creatures including starfish and sea urchins. "They love it," she says.

To reach a large audience of schoolchildren throughout the area, SAMS takes part regularly in the annual Argyll and Bute Regional Environmental Edu-cation Forum Environment Fairs.

Over the last two years, Loch-gilphead High has built up links with SAMS. "The scientists are so good, we can ring them up about anything," says Mrs Mackie. "It is a fantastic relationship."

One pupil has already been to SAMS on a bursary course and another is due to go this summer. Last year, a fourth-year girl did her work experience there. The centre also has strong ties with Oban High, where it sponsors an annual prize for outstanding achievement in science.

To reach more pupils, SAMS wants to target teachers and is hoping to expand its popular continuing professional development courses. Last year, the centre introduced a course on climate change, knowing that, as one of the main environmental challenges for the coming century, it was a topic which science and geography teachers particularly at secondary schools might want to brush up on. The course, which shows how climate change can also be used to illustrate general scientific principles such as pH, density, evolution and rock cycles using a mixture of lectures, discussions, demonstrations and fieldwork, was over-subscribed.

Last year, teachers from nine schools, including Castlebay High in the Western Isles, Kelso High, Oban High and Dingwall Acad-emy, attended the residential weekend. This year's course, which is due to take place in the autumn, is filling up fast, although some spaces are still available. If the current level of interest continues, Dr Miller, who is also a lecturer in marine life sciences, hopes to run two or three courses and to expand the issues covered.

Mrs Mackie was lucky to get on last year's residential course. "That was wonderful," she says. "The lecturers there were so brilliant. They introduced physics, biology, chemistry and palaeontology superbly."

Over the next few months, Lochgilphead High will be holding fundraising events to find pound;3,000 towards some of the travelling expenses and equipment for the trip to the Canadian archipelago. And with summer not quite here, Mrs Mackie is already thinking about next March and the Arctic cold.



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