Northern Exposure

Northern Exposure

By bringing the Arctic into the classroom, the GoNorth! program is changing the world—one dogsled adventure at a time.

Fresh from their holiday break, the third-graders in John Clay’s classroom at Eden Lake Elementary School are unusually excited about the lesson plan. Today, they’re going online to “adopt” a sled dog.

Each week throughout the winter, the students log in to follow along as their dog journeys to the Arctic with a team of mushers, researchers and educators. On the way, the class explores climate change, marine science, traditional Inuit cultures and a whole lot more.

Clay’s class is one of more than 4,500 around the world using the GoNorth! curriculum, a free online education program designed by the University of Minnesota’s College of Education & Human Development and NOMADS Adventure & Education.

The basic idea of GoNorth! is to link students and teachers in K-12 classrooms to a real-time learning adventure. Every year, the team makes the trip to a different Arctic region. While dogsledding across some of the coldest, most remote landscapes on the planet, the team beams into classrooms via satellite to help teachers deliver lessons that stick.

According to Clay, it’s an idea that helps his students understand the real-world implications of natural and social sciences, geography and other subjects he’s teaching. “For this age, the hook is the dogs,” he says. “They’re very motivated to watch their dog during the course of the expedition, and that inspires them to engage with the curriculum.”

This kind of engagement is the goal of the program, says Aaron Doering, education director for GoNorth! and an associate professor at the U of M. Traveling through the Arctic by dogsled is no small feat—weather is extreme and ever-shifting, the pace requires physical endurance, and there are always polar bears to worry about. Yet each Friday, the expedition halts to hook up satellite equipment, solar panels and laptop computers to deliver the curriculum live from the field.

“Everything we’re doing and communicating on the trail is in sync with what the students are learning in the classrooms,” says Doering. “What we’ve found in our research is that students are significantly motivated to learn in this way.”

Clay sees the evidence of this first-hand. “I have students who have moved up in the grades and they’re still going online to look up the program and to check up on their dog.”

Part of the GoNorth! curriculum, and a key component of the expedition, involves field research for NASA, the National Science Foundation and other partners. Case in point: The team, often with the help of Arctic students, digs snow pits to collect data that can be used to fine-tune NASA satellite imagery.

It’s impossible to study the environment and cultures of the Arctic without coming face-to-face with the realities of climate change and the questions surrounding sustainability. Indeed, in the five years since Doering and his colleagues launched GoNorth!, climate change has become an increasingly central concern to the people of the Arctic, and hence, the program.

Nearly 3 million years ago, Arctic countries like Greenland—the destination for this year’s GoNorth! expedition—were comparatively balmy places, with warm oceans and landscapes you might see in the mid-latitudes of the United States. The ice age changed all that, layering the poles with vast sheets of ice that oozed glaciers all the way down to the equatorial latitudes.

Today, the last of those massive polar ice caps are rapidly melting. Scientists predict that, for the first time in roughly 2.5 million years, the Arctic Ocean will be free of summer ice within the decade.

Climate change is affecting the Arctic at a much faster pace than the rest of the world, in part because of “feedback loops” that magnify the impact of a warming climate. For example, white snow reflects solar heat back into the atmosphere, while black dirt absorbs it. Thus, as the Arctic snow-cover melts, it uncovers dirt, which heats up, accelerating the rate of melting in the snow that remains.

For people living in the Arctic, climate change is radically altering their hybrid of traditional and contemporary customs. Greenland, for instance, is surrounded by sea ice for most of the year. For generations, hunters have followed traditional migration routes to catch the prey that feeds their communities. Today, as sea ice retreats, this centuries-old practice is dying out.

Through the GoNorth! program's “What is Climate Change to You?” project, students at schools in the circumpolar Arctic work hand-in-hand with scientists and each other, connecting online with other classrooms around the world to share their observations and messages of change.

As they’ve grappled with the rapid changes in their environment, the Arctic Inuit have become leaders in advocating for a global effort to reverse climate change, thanks in part to their GoNorth! connection. Through the program’s “What is Climate Change to You?” project, students at schools in the circumpolar Arctic work hand-in-hand with scientists and each other, connecting online with other classrooms around the world to share their observations and messages of change.

During December’s Copenhagen summit, GoNorth! sponsored a pan-Arctic delegation of youth from Greenland, Alaska, Northern Europe’s Sápmi region, and Nunavut, Canada’s Baffin Island. With the world as their stage, the youth presented eyewitness accounts of the impacts of climate change.

Doering says experiences like these—which students worldwide can access through video, audio and other media on the GoNorth! Web site—are crucial to adventure learning. By focusing not only on environmental studies and issues, but also on the lives of Arctic students, the program takes learning out of the abstract realm and into the daily choices of each participant.

“Ultimately, the curriculum makes them aware of what’s happening in the wider world and how their choices can make an impact,” says Clay. “It doesn’t have to be a huge thing that they do, but for instance, students here are bringing their lunch not in a paper bag but a reusable sack.”

Multiplied by 3 million students, such small changes make a serious impression. In 2008, GoNorth! was named a Tech Awards Laureate by the Tech Museum of Innovation. This prestigious award is granted annually to 25 organizations or programs that use technology to benefit humanity.

“Of all the awards and recognition that I’ve received, that’s the one that means more to me than anything else,” says Doering. “These are exciting learning experiences that empower students to impact the world. Ultimately, that’s the goal: To deliver an education program that can truly change the world.”

JOSEPH HART is a freelance writer and editor, an author, and a longtime contributor to the Utne Reader, where he covers a range of topics including alternative energy and green issues. He’s also a contributing writer/editor to the annual GoNorth! Curriculum and Activity Guide.