It can be challenging for students to comprehend the methods, tools, and technologies used in scientific research, and polar science is no exception. The remote locations and harsh environments mean that increasingly sophisticated – and complex – technologies must be used in research. Help your students understand polar research by using these lessons and activities. We’ve included ideas for teaching about ice cores, sediment cores, remote sensing, balloon-assisted research, robots, and the work of polar researchers. Due to the complex nature of these subjects, most of the lessons are appropriate for upper elementary students. Looking for lessons to use with students in grades K-2? Check out Planning Polar Expeditions Integrates Math, Science, Geography for resources about gear, clothing, and expedition routes.
We’ve suggested ideas for integrating literacy – reading, writing, and discussion – into these activities. We’ve also aligned each lesson to the appropriate national standards – National Science Education Standards and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)/International Reading Association (IRA) Standards for the English Language Arts. The entire National Science Education Standards document can be read online or downloaded for free from the National Academies Press web site. The content standards are found in Chapter 6. The NCTE/IRA Standards may be viewed online as well.
Polar researchers use ice cores to reconstruct the climate of the past. Ice cores contain layers, millimeters to centimeters thick, which can be counted to determine the age of the ice core. The cores contain bubbles of dissolved gas, which provide information about the composition of the atmosphere. Oxygen molecules are used to determine the temperature of the ocean water, which evaporated to form the snow that made the ice. As of October 2009, researchers had collected and analyzed ice cores that reveal climate conditions over the past 850,000 years.
Ice Cores (Grades 3-5)
This activity involves using frozen water balloons (ice balloons) to represent ice cores. Students observe the air bubbles trapped in the ice and discuss how similar bubbles help scientists understand past climates. Scroll down the page to find this activity. This activity meets the Earth and Space Science and History and Nature of Science content standards of the National Science Education Standards.
Frozen in Time: Ice Cores (Grades 4-5)
In this lesson, students observe and measure cans of frozen water, prepared by the teacher, to simulate the study of ice cores by glaciologists. They count the number of years of snow accumulation represented in their cores and graph their data to discover trends in annual snowfall. This lesson meets the Science as Inquiry, Physical Science, Earth and Space Science, and History and Nature of Science content standards of the National Science Education Standards.
Ice Cores: Modeling Ice Sheets (Grades 5 and up)
Students working in groups use common materials to create layers representing stratification of snow and ice. Groups exchange their layers and extract core samples to analyze them. This lesson meets the Earth and Space Science and History and Nature of Science content standards of the National Science Education Standards
These lessons include drawing the ice cores, graphing, and answering questions, making them ideal for use with science notebooks.
Researchers with the ANDRILL (Antarctic Geological Drilling) project use sediment cores from Antarctica’s coastline to reconstruct past glacial history and better predict Earth’s future climate.
Layer-Cake Earth (Grades 3-5; can be modified for K-2)
This article, from the National Science Teachers Association’s magazine Science and Children, explains how to use a layer cake to create a hands-on activity in which students take core samples, locate fossils, and investigate concepts related to geologic sampling. NSTA members can download and read the article for free; nonmembers are charged $0.99.
Suggested modifications for grades 1-2:
Cupcakes would allow for individual participation.
Modify the core description so students draw and describe their sample. This lesson meets the National Science Education Standards Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry and Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science.
The article includes extension questions that can be answered in science notebooks or journals. Students can also draw and label their group’s core sample, and describe their findings. Descriptions and drawings can be assessed with a rubric.
Remote sensing (satellite images, aerial photography, and other techniques) is used to observe remote and inaccessible locations in the polar regions. It is also used to track large-scale changes, such as the changes in the polar ice caps.
Changes in the Antarctic Ice Sheet (Grades 4-5)
Use satellite images on the web to track the changing ice sheet, month by month. Pair with the NOVA video clip Antarctica: Sea Ice, available from Teachers’ Domain.
Suggestions for elementary teachers:
Save each image separately to your computer and print. The images will be much larger than they appear on the web site.
Have students create a flipbook with one page per month.
Create a slide show to display on an interactive white board or through a projection system instead of having students trace the images.
Print and copy the images for students instead of having students trace them.
Student drawings and written descriptions of the changes in sea ice can be recorded in a science notebook.
A Remote-Sensing Mission (Grade 5 and up)
In this article from Science and Children, an NSTA journal, fifth-grade teacher Rose Hotchkiss describes how her experience with the Remote Sensing Earth Science Teacher Program (sponsored by NASA and the JASON Project) translated into a remote-sensing mission with her students. Remote sensing is often used in the polar regions to collect data in inaccessible locations. NSTA members can download and read the article for free; nonmembers are charged $0.99.
The activities described in this article meet the Science as Inquiry, Earth and Space Science, Science and Technology, and History and Nature of Science content standards of the National Science Education Standards.
The article references a “mission notebook” (science notebook) in which students posed questions, recorded data, and drew conclusions.
High-altitude balloons carry weather instruments high into the atmosphere, collecting data in a cost-efficient manner.
Designing Payloads (Grade 5 and up)
In this article from the NSTA journal Science and Children, fifth-grade teacher Linda Kehr describes a project in which students learned about weather balloon satellites and participated in launching a high-altitude balloon satellite as the culminating experience. Balloons are used in Antarctic regions to gather data about the upper atmosphere. NSTA members can download and read the article for free; nonmembers are charged $0.99.
The activities described in this article meet the Science as Inquiry, Physical Science, Earth Science, and Science and Technology content standards of the National Science Education Standards.
In this project, students designed their own experiments for the balloon launch – which could be recorded in a science notebook.
Robots, sometimes known as Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, are used to explore the deep waters of the Arctic and Southern Oceans.
Two Miles Below (Grades K-5)
This informational text describes how scientists used robots to explore the Gakkel Ridge, a mountain range two miles beneath the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The text is available at three grade levels — K-1, 2-3, and 4-5 — and in three formats — text-only, illustrated book, and electronic book with recorded audio narration.
Teachers can differentiate instruction with this science-themed informational text by allowing students to choose a variety of post-reading activities.
Differentiating at the Nonfiction Café
This article includes a menu of post-reading activities for use with any nonfiction text. Students spend $50 on their choice of activities.
PolarTREC Teacher and Researcher at Work (Grades K-5)
Students use journals, pictures, and forums at the PolarTREC web site to learn about a researcher or an expedition. They record what they learned about the polar researcher’s work on a worksheet. Teachers may choose to modify this lesson by having students create posters, scrapbooks, or field logs in lieu of the worksheet. This activity meets the History and Nature of Science content standard of the National Science Education Standards.
Polar Scientists (Grades K-5)
Students learn about current polar scientists and their research by using a variety of web sites. They will determine their personal views of polar science as a career. This activity meets the History and Nature of Science content standard of the National Science Education Standards.
Who Are These People? (Grades K-5)
This lesson provides guidelines for a project that develops connections between students and scientists via a shared biography, a guest speaker, or an online exchange. This activity meets the History and Nature of Science content standard of the National Science Education Standards.
These lessons all involve research and reading about polar scientists and their work. Students can create a variety of products to display their knowledge, including:
- Poster or Glogster (virtual poster)
- Scrapbook (paper or online at Stixy)
- Presentation (using PowerPoint or Prezi)
Learning about polar researchers can meet the following NCTE/IRA standards: 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, 11, 12.
Copyright April 2010 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. 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. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.