School visits: Jennifer King

king_resizedUKPN Committee Member Jennifer King recently gave an outreach presentation to the Silverhill Primary School in Derby to contribute to their Polar Science Week. Jennifer King has travelled across the Arctic for her research, and shared with the pupils what it was is like to work and study as a polar scientist.



I was invited to visit Silverhill Primary School in Derby to contribute to their Polar science week by sharing with the pupils what it is like to work as a polar scientist. All classes were off their regular timetables for the week, and the school had the fabulous ‘Class Zero Emissions‘ materials from the International Polar Foundation set up in the main hall.

Describing glacier ice
Jennifer King describing glacier ice to primary schoolchildren.

I was able to make a good exploration of the class zero emissions materials alongside one of the younger classes during the first session of the day. The 3D jigsaws of the Arctic and Antarctic are incredibly detailed, one can for example lift the ice from Antarctica and greenland to show the mountains below, or experiment with different sea ice extents, summer and winter, and from different years. The pupils were also participating in two different experiments. The first, a comparison of what happens to the water level within a pot when a) ice floating in that water melts compared to b) a second pot with ice perched on a rock melting into the water, demonstrated that when it comes to sea level rise it is the melting of the land ice that is a problem as opposed to the melting of the sea ice. The second experiment compared how fast a dark surface could heat up compared to a white (reflective) surface; the dark surface absorbed more heat, showing that diminishing sea ice area is a problem in another way, allowing the darker ocean beneath to absorb incoming solar radiation. Warm water expands, thus also contributing to sea level rise.

The amazing 'Class Zero Emissions' jigsaw of the Arctic.
The amazing ‘Class Zero Emissions’ jigsaw of the Arctic.

At 10 o’clock, I gave a 15 minute assembly for the whole school where I focused only on what it is like to live and work in the Arctic. I spoke about where one might stay while on fieldwork (boat, research station or field camp), how one might travel, the sorts of equipment one might need to survive, and what one might eat. For this I used photos from my trips to Greenland and Svalbard, and from my fieldwork in the Fram Strait. I had been briefed by Kate Nash, the headteacher of Silverhill, to keep things really simple for the younger ones in the audience. At the end of my presentation one person from each year group asked a question. Most of the questions were about equipment; for example, how did one keep warm overnight in camp? Did one get one’s own tent? (For me, I slept in two sleeping bags inside one another, all inside a Goretex bivi, and we were sharing 3-man tents, so had to be pretty tolerant of other people).  Surprisingly, no one asked where you went to the loo in camp, though everyone I had spoken to about outreach before hand warned me to expect this question.

After a second session with the Class Zero Emissions workshop, and some lunch, it was time for my second presentation. To the top junior classes I spoke about the different types of ice that there are: sea ice, glaciers, ice sheets, ice shelves and ice bergs. I then explained some of the reasons scientists go to study in the polar regions, using the deployment of weather stations and weather balloons in antarctica; and field work I had participated in in the Fram Strait – investigating ice thickness and ice temperature to give the sea ice a ‘health check’, as case studies. Of course there were many more pictures of penguins, polar bears and snowy mountains.

After another Q and A session, two classes departed, leaving the remaining pupils to take their turn with the trying on of polar clothing, the two experiments and the giant jigsaw.

Interested schoolchildren learning about polar regions.
Interested schoolchildren learning about polar regions.

I really enjoyed my day, although I was completely shattered by the end of it – primary school pupils are extremely high energy! I couldnt have been made more welcome by Kate & Charlotte and the rest of the staff, and I was extremely impressed with how on the ball the entire school was with the climate change message. All the pupils seemed very aware of the need to reduce our energy consumption and very interested in the polar regions. I think the best moment was right at the end of the day, when one pupil, who had been quite mischievous, clowning around, said to me ‘I used to think science was rubbish, but now I think its really cool!’. It felt like a large responsibility, being the representative for all of polar science ever for these pupils, but I came away saying to myself that if I had succeeded in inspiring one person, I probably hadn’t done a terrible job! (Oh, and someone in that last session did ask about how one went to the loo…!)

Top outreach tips:

    • Keep it simple.
    • Lots of pictures.
    • Be prepared to answer the same question a billion times, with a smile.
    • Make it age appropriate. (Ask teachers for guidance if possible).
    • Go over the practicalities ahead of time: e.g. Make sure of what equipment you will be presenting with (& if using your own laptop make sure you have the right connectors for the projector).
    • Smile.
    • Relax. You are the first polar scientist these kids have met, and you are a diversion from the regular routine. Therefore, by default, you are awesome!