Team receives $ 2 million NSF grant to teach virtual explorers about permafrost and arctic climate change – NAU News


Scientists at Northern Arizona University, Arizona State University, the Arizona Geological Survey at the University of Arizona, and the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder have received nearly 2 million dollars from the National Science Foundation to develop virtual reality education. tool called Polar Explorer. In this immersive web-based environment, undergraduates will explore the polar environments of the Arctic to learn about permafrost from their laptops, desktops or mobile devices.

“The real-time transformation of the Arctic affects everyone, but most of us cannot get there to witness these changes,” said Deborah Huntzinger, Associate Professor in the School of Earth and Sustainability at Northern Arizona University and Principal Investigator (PI) leading the project. “Polar Explorer will take students deep into thawing permafrost and along the shores of the Arctic to discover how the region is changing in an immersive and accessible way. “

She is joined by Co-PI Regents Professor Michelle mack and artist Victor Leshyk from the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society at NAU, Ariel Anbar and Chris Mead from the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Center for Education Through Exploration (ETX) at Arizona State University (ASU), Lisa Thompson from Arizona Geological Survey at the University of Arizona and Kevin Schaefer from the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder (UCB).

The team is focused on the Arctic because global warming is rapidly changing that region in ways that affect climate, infrastructure, and public health around the world. Over the past three decades, the Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world, and permafrost has started to thaw. Thawing permafrost releases huge amounts of previously frozen greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating the rate of climate change. Thawing permafrost can also threaten the food and drinking water security of local residents and lead to erosion of landscapes, collapse of buildings and roads, and an increased risk of forest fires. These impacts make it important for the general public to understand how the Arctic is changing and why these changes have important consequences for people around the world. But the remoteness and inaccessibility of the Arctic makes it difficult to teach students about permafrost and its consequences.

The team hopes Polar Explorer will change that. Using virtual learning technology pioneered by ASU’s ETX center, students will be able to visit scientifically accurate landscapes and interact with them as if they were physically there, regardless of their background. socio-economic, their physical capacities or their level of academic preparation. Polar Explorer will be an adaptive learning environment built around a series of Immersive Virtual Excursions (iVFT). For example, to examine the links between carbon and permafrost, students will visit (virtually) the experimental research site on heating carbon in permafrost in Healy, Alaska, where the NAU Regents professor Ted schuur has been studying permafrost for over a decade. From the cabin where Schuur’s research team lives during the summer, students will hear the neighborhood sled dogs howling. In the field, they will measure carbon dioxide emissions, examine real-time carbon dioxide and temperature data, and perform other virtual measurements to compare permafrost thaw depths in plots that have been warmed versus to those who haven’t been.

“Polar Explorer will put students in the field, so that they don’t just read the dramatic changes we see in the Arctic, but experience them,” said Schaefer, researcher at National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Each student navigating iVFTs in Polar Explorer will have a unique experience, receiving personalized feedback tailored to their needs while working towards the same learning outcomes as their peers. The team, with help from the NAU Science Teaching and Learning Center, will test Polar Explorer as part of undergraduate courses at NAU before making it free and accessible to all level students. university with access to the Internet and a modern web browser.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for results-oriented distance learning resources for teachers of all levels, and Polar Explorer is meeting that need, said Thompson, a researcher with the Arizona Geological Survey.

“Smart tutoring systems have been tested in undergraduate science courses at NAU, ASU and nationally and globally,” she said. “We have the technology, and now is an important time to bring the rapidly evolving Arctic to student devices. “

“What is particularly exciting about this project is the opportunity to study how iVFTs help students learn difficult concepts such as working at multiple scales and understanding transdisciplinary connections,” said Mead, researcher. assistant to ASU. “These skills are inherent in polar science and they are absolutely essential in preparing students for the challenges of the 21st century. “

Image credit: Victor O. Leshyk, Scotland

Kate Petersen | Center for Ecosystem Science and Society


Norma A. Roth