We plan to seed a cultural change in STEM education by placing early, consistent, and simultaneous emphasis on research, communication, and education through a comprehensive program that is integrated with our current and ongoing research on climate change.
Boston University geologist David Marchant has led more than 20 research expeditions to Antarctica, and its dramatic landscapes continue to enthrall him. “There's just something about Antarctica,” he says. “It changes your perspective about humanity, about what's important in life.” Still, he acknowledges, there's nothing quite like finding yourself in the silence of the ice-covered continent for the first time. For him, that experience came during graduate school, when he volunteered to pitch in with another scientist's fieldwork for a few months. “It completely captivated me,” he says. “I've been back almost every year since.”
Marchant was studying coastal geology at the University of Maine, but redirected his research to look for evidence of changes in the Antarctic landscape that coincided with the most recent warm period in the earth's history, about 3 million years ago. While earning his PhD in geomorphology from the University of Edinburgh, he discovered no evidence of the glacial melt and rising seas that many scientists had argued must have occurred. Instead, he found, most of the Antarctic landscape has been paralyzed in its frozen state for 14 million years.
Marchant came to Boston University in 1995, where he developed the university's Antarctic Research Group. These days, he recaptures some of his first-expedition wonder through the eyes of the students and postdoctoral researchers who join his research team each Antarctic summer. “What we've found is that the landscape is preserved mostly intact,” he says. “It's so cold and dry that there's no ability for water to modify the landscape. Gravel and cobble now armor the land surface, so wind erosion is minimal, as well. When we go to the valleys high in the Transantarctic Mountains, we're seeing the landscape much as it existed 10-15 million years ago.”
That stability creates an opportunity for his research team to extract long-term records of climate change and landscape evolution from the existing landscape. His discovery of eight-million-year-old ice buried beneath the Antarctic surface – the oldest ice in the world – made it possible to reconstruct the long-term evolution of the atmosphere by analyzing ancient gas bubbles trapped in the ice. By analyzing the terrain, his team can pinpoint precisely where ice has advanced and retreated. Linking these records of climate change and ice sheet fluctuations over the last 14 million years, Marchant's team can predict how the continent is likely to respond to future warming.
Marchant's work has led to the development of the longest terrestrial record for climate change on Antarctica – a 15-million-year-old record that encompasses tundra extinction, fluctuations of ice-sheet and alpine glaciers, and onset of the hyper-arid cold-desert conditions that put Antarctica into its current deep polar freeze. Because the Antarctic surface resembles Mars more than any other place on earth, this work has also helped Marchant document buried glaciers and climate change on Mars, paving the way for discovering water in the planet's shallow subsurface.
Marchant believes that climate scientists have a great responsibility to communicate their work to the public, and he knows his research lends itself to sparking people's imaginations and curiosity. “Ice sheets, Mars, fossil extinction – I have the best possible world for outreach,” he says. “That makes me work twice as hard to get the message out.” Students in Marchant's lab have the opportunity to analyze real samples of ice and volcanic ash from Antarctica, or explore the continent through a Digital Image Analysis Lab that recreates the landscape with high-resolution satellite imagery. He also offers lectures, lab tours, and seminars to middle school, high school, and community college students. “We tend to engage the public at every step,” he says. He wants his audiences to appreciate the science he presents – even if they don't understand all of its details – and, just as importantly, to be able to tell someone else about it.
Now, he's launching a program that will teach undergraduates at Boston University not only about climate science research, but also how to effectively communicate what they've learned. Faculty from the university's schools of arts and sciences, communication, and education are coming together to create an 18-month program that includes a seminar series, laboratory experience in the Experimental Permafrost Lab, a summer internship, and fieldwork in Antarctica--either in person or through real-time, virtual fieldwork in the Digital Image Analysis Lab. Students majoring in the sciences, education, and communication will all be involved in every aspect of the program: conducting experiments on geological samples from Antarctica, working with middle-school teachers to translate lab results into lesson plans, and producing communication products for the general public. In the culminating fieldwork experience, students might drill into ancient buried ice or document terrestrial evidence for tundra extinction in Antarctica, or assist the field team with sample strategy and data analysis from the virtual lab in Boston. “If we can create an opportunity for students to excel, they'll rise to the challenge,” Marchant says.