To the roof of the Earth for science |

To the roof of the Earth for science

Heidi Rice
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Jury Jerome Post Independent

Susy Ellison’s eyes absolutely glow, her face lights up and her voice is filled with enthusiasm when she talks about science.

So it’s no surprise that the 14-year veteran science teacher at Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs plans to spend her entire summer break from school living a science-oriented lifestyle.

Ellison is taking two expeditions through an organization called “PolarTREC,” out of Fairbanks, Alaska, which sends teams of teachers and researchers to various remote polar locations to learn about polar science.

The goal of PolarTREC is to promote education and understanding by bringing K-12 educators and polar researchers together through hands-on field experiences.

And when they get back, they share what they have learned; objectives include increasing students’ understanding and engagement in the polar regions and sparking interest in pursuing science, technology, engineering or mathematic (STEM) careers.

“I’ll take this [knowledge] and bring it back to use it in my fall classes,” Ellison said.

The PolarTREC program began in 2007 and is funded through the National Science Foundation.

Both the expeditions are taking place in arctic Alaska, and the first one will be a 10-day camping and research trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeastern Alaska, near the Canadian border.

“There will be three of us – the other two are researchers from Columbia University,” Ellison said. “We’ll have a base camp and be collecting samples from the trees to see if they are being impacted by climate changes.”

The group will look at growth rings – annual layers of tree growth visible on the cross section of a tree trunk (like a stump). Along with the age of the tree, a study of the rings will also show the response of the tree to environmental conditions, such as a really dry or wet year.

“What the impact is if it’s too warm or cold, nobody knows for sure,” Ellison pointed out.

The group will be studying mostly white spruce trees and collecting samples from the boreal forest and trees very far north. They will take tree measurements and record their observations about the environment around the trees and how it has impacted tree growth.

The expedition will last from July 3-15.

The second expedition is an archaeological study, and the field team will meet in Fairbanks, Alaska and fly by chartered aircraft to a private airport at the Red Dog Mine in northwestern Alaska. From there, the team, their equipment and their supplies will be shuttled by helicopter about 50 kilometers inland to a remote field camp near the Raven Bluff archaeological site. “They say this is one of the most important archaeological sites in America,” Ellison said.

The site is believed to contain the remains of a prehistoric camp that dates to the very end of the last ice age – about 11,000 years ago.

“It’s important because it contains the oldest, well-preserved collection of archeological animal bone in the American arctic. This can teach us about ancient people’s diet, hunting tactics and seasonal movements.”

Ellison pointed out that it has been believed that those who came across the Bering Land Bridge moved south.

“But maybe not,” she said. “We just don’t know.”

By studying the artifacts they discover, the research team is looking at the nature and timing of early human population movements in the Americas.

This expedition will run from July 25 through Aug. 11. “In between [expeditions], I’ll meet my husband in Fairbanks, and we’ll travel around,” Ellison said with a smile.

Only 12 participants are chosen from around the country to participate in the PolarTREC program each year. Six of the teacher/researchers will go to the arctic and the other six to the Antarctic.

“It’s pretty competitive,” Ellison said.

According to Kristin Timm, a project manager for PolarTREC, 51 teachers went through the program between 2007 and 2010 and 28 teachers have participated since 2010.

“We have about 250 applicants each year for 12 spots,” Timm said. “And most of those are new teachers to the program.”

A rigorous selection process is conducted by a committee.

“We look for diversity among teachers, with different grade levels and communities,” Timm said. “On their application, we look for a clear vision of how it is going to impact their teaching and how they plan to bring it back to the students.”

But the information is not just limited to educating students. The scientists on the exhibitions also use their findings for their research.

“These are all real, working scientists that have their own funded research projects,” Timm said.

The year-round program is usually held in the Arctic during the summer months and the Antarctic during the winter.

Ellisons’ two trips won’t be her first wilderness expeditions. In 2003, Ellison, whose background is in wildlife biology, went to Antarctica on a seal research project.

“We did a population study of the Weddell seals, tagging them and counting them,” she said.

Ellison, a Carbondale resident, teaches physical, earth and life science classes at Yampah Mountain High School, and in 2010 was honored by the National Environmental Education Foundation with their Richard C. Bartlett Environmental Education award.

But it’s when she talks about coming back to school and sharing what she has learned on her wilderness trips, that her face really lights up.

“Isn’t it great?” she said, her eyes big. “I get to learn cutting edge science and then come back and share the information with the students and the community.”

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