Polar Challenge Workshops: bringing the Arctic to your classroom

Polar Challenge Workshops

Digital Explorer is challenging you! Can your students take on the Polar Challenge?

The polar challenge day engages students to learn more about the importance of this remote region. Create and train your pupils into teams of polar guides, expedition leaders, communications managers and scientists. Plan an itinerary collect data, share the findings and see how many teams survive!

This workshop is suited to ages 5-16, suitable for geography or science students. This activity day comes with accompanying lesson plans, activity sheets, photos and videos. You can download the most relevant resources for your class at the Digital Explorer website.

The Polar Challenge Workshop for primary is a cross curricular set of resources that involves guest speakers coming into the school to discuss life in the Arctic. The activities that take place for the primary polar challenge include making polar sandwiches and a food web mobile.

The polar Challenge workshop for secondary schools is best suited for geography or science students. The focus on this workshop is based around data exercises and expedition life. Guest speakers usually include scientists or people that have travelled to the Arctic.

The Polar challenge days are developed as an off-timetable model for half- or full-days. The polar challenge provides a hands on experimental learning adventure.

For more information on the Polar challenge workshop please visit Digital Explorer.

The full range of resources are available to download now.

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Guest blog: I love being a polar explorer


Many people think that being a polar explorer is only about enduring hardships and hauling massive sleds across miles and miles of ice. There are these things, but there is also so much more to polar exploring than just that. One of the largest parts of our jobs is to take vital scientific measurements. To do this we do have to go across hundreds of miles of ice, but even this has its upsides. Waking up in this beautiful landscape is one of the perks of the jobs.

Because of the serenity and emptiness of the Arctic, it is a real shock to come back to the U.K! Your brain struggles to process everything that you see around you. Your senses pick up the minor things, like food cooking, and cars going past.

After the peace and remoteness of the Arctic, it is a very sudden change! It is very funny to see all of the Londoners in their thick coats, and we are there in T – shirts and jeans!

One question we get asked a lot is if we have ever come face to face with a polar bear. They don’t usually come near the camp, but if they do, making lots of noise surprises them, probably because they are not used to having anything stand up to them!

I love being a polar explorer, and I wouldn’t swap my job for anything! It is a great feeling to know that the work we are doing could really make a positive difference to the Polar Regions. I feel honoured to have the opportunity to do this, and if anyone is thinking of a career in Polar Exploration, go ahead!

By Jake S, as part of the Colyton Grammar School Polar Challenge Day. Pupils were asked to write a blog post describing life on a polar expedition, using what they had learnt during the day.

Guest blog: What being a polar explorer is like


As you would expect, being a polar explorer is extremely difficult. For one thing, the Arctic is one of the most remote areas on the planet, and help isn’t simply a phone call away, as it is in most places. If trouble comes, you are on your own! And of course, the main problem is the cold. Temperatures can drop to -60°C! This is so cold that some things freeze instantly. One day, I was chucking out the waste water from cooking, and as I threw it, the liquid froze in mid-air and fell to the ground, a dead weight!

The cold means that things must be protected, even inside the tents! Even 1 minute exposing flesh can start frostbite, a horrible condition where extremities like fingers and toes freeze, turn black, and have to be amputated. Protecting yourself means everything is challenging. Every night, when I get into bed, I have to go through a strict ritual. First, I have to take off my clothes down to my thermals, while still wearing my mitts. Obviously this is quite difficult, because mitts are massive and puffy. After that, I have to get in 4 layers of sleeping bag! The first layer is a thermal bag, a bit like a crisp packet, to stop moisture leaving my body at night and freezing around me, then I put on a fleece, a thick heavy outer layer, and, if it is really cold, a further thick outer layer. And putting all this on ahs to be done with mitts, of course!

It is hard getting to sleep, even once I am in my sleeping bag. In the summer, it is light all day and night long, due to the planet’s tilt, so I have to cover my eyes with something, e.g. a hat, to have any chance of sleeping. In the morning, when I get up, the day starts straight away. Each member of the team has to pull a sled weighing an incredible 200 pounds, and that is just the minimal amount needed for survival be! 200 pounds is the weight of about 5 12 year old children! 10 hours of the day is spent travelling, pulling the necessities like food, shelter and scientific equipment. The sleds must be pulled over anything, including sharp ice rubble, steep ledges and even floated across rivers like a raft! But, of course, while travelling, the great beauty of the Arctic can be seen. A vast plain of ice, the sun reflecting off them, is one of the greatest sights in the world.

At the end of the journey, it is time to set up camp. In nice weather, around – 30°C, this can be ok, but at -50°C, in the driving winds, after a day spent pulling heavy sledges, this isn’t fun. At least when it is up, it is a bit warmer. Food is normally high calorie things, like Mars bars, that have been sliced and put into bags to stop them freezing, otherwise they would break your teeth! An electric fence is set up around the camp, to deter any curious polar bears. Once, when I was going to the toilet tent outside the fence, a polar bear appeared, so I had to leg it back over the fence before it got closer!

It is always a bit sad coming back home after visiting the Arctic, because nothing feels the same. However, it is nice to have some warmth! The whole point of Arctic exploration is to conserve and protect the Arctic. The Arctic is incredibly important in the world, as it helps control the climate. But unfortunately it is melting. That is why people explore the Arctic and brave the challenges; to discover more about how fast it’s melting and why. The Arctic is worth saving!

By Jake L, as part of the Colyton Grammar School Polar Challenge Day. Pupils were asked to write a blog post describing life on a polar expedition, using what they had learnt during the day.

Guest blog: What is it like to be a polar explorer?


Polar exploring can be extremely hard but it can also be rewarding. It is an amazing experience that very few people get to have.
The hardest thing to get used to is the climate, as on one day it can be sunny and clear and the next extremely foggy. This can also make it hard for planes to get in, so if anything goes wrong you could be stranded for weeks. The temperature is definitely not helpful to the expedition and can range from +1° to – 60°celsius. This means that any simple task such as zipping up a sleeping bag can become one of great difficulty. Most of these tasks are hindered by the bulky clothing that explorers have to wear, In order to keep warm.

However, the experience is almost definitely worth the suffering. The beautiful, if hostile, landscape of the arctic is breath-taking, and might not be around much longer. Explorers and scientists do tests to try and work out how much longer the arctic ice will last. Other explorers attempt to break records and travel to the pole dragging sleds behind them.

This exploring is difficult because all the supplies needed for the journey, including enough food, tents, and any other equipment, needs to be dragged in this sled for the whole journey. Explorers have to try and pack light to make sure they can drag it. They can weigh 120kg or possibly even more!

The terrain can also be a challenge; because of ice moving in the opposite direction, ridges, rifts and large stretches of water or thin ice can form. Pulling a sled through all this requires a lot of stamina and accuracy. It also means that it can be difficult for planes to land if help is required in this remote area of the earth.

By Emily O, as part of the Colyton Grammar School Polar Challenge Day. Pupils were asked to write a blog post describing life on a polar expedition, using what they had learnt during the day.

Guest blog: A day in the life of a polar explorer


It’s hard living in the Arctic. Six weeks stuck in a small tent, freezing outside, permanently covered in at least 5 layers of fabric and clothing. It has to be the most gruelling challenge in my life. It requires perseverance, lots of stamina, a willing to fulfil what you set out to do, and most importantly, the ability to stay sane (by far the hardest to achieve).

Every morning, peel yourself out of 4 or more sleeping bags (each more difficult to open than the last), then, when you finally feel like getting up, you zip down the tent, and reveal the arduous cold, (once again, each day more cold than the last!). Today I managed to forget my over layer when I went outside, and boy did I remember quickly! My hands and feet went instantly numb as I fumbled to zip up the 2 inch puffy coat.

I came to the Arctic because I was offered a science job after the lead scientist backed out a week before the expedition was due to leave. I wasn’t woefully unprepared, but signing up at the last minute meant I didn’t have time to remember every essential item, and if you forget anything, you’ll regret it when you realise you need it! I made my way to the mess tent, a rather large tent with tables and a cooker. The cook and other scientists where already there, eating warm porridge. There were about 10 people at this site, with about 15 tents on the site.

When I got out, I surveyed the horizon. White Plains for as far as the eye can see, not a cloud in the sky, and the sun about 30 degrees. It would be a lovely day, if it weren’t -30. I made my way to the science tent for another monotonous day of drilling into ice and looking at copepods, but my work is essential, as in 20 years, or less, this arctic sea ice I’m standing on may not exist. So it is vital that we get our facts and figures before this marvellous place vanishes forever. Looking at the horizon I realized that if anyone saw this view, they would know how important it is to save this magical place.

By Adam C, as part of the Colyton Grammar School Polar Challenge Day. Pupils were asked to write a blog post describing life on a polar expedition, using what they had learnt during the day.

Class Skype – a great way to speak at schools

It was wonderful to take part in a Skype call with Middleham Primary last week to talk about life in the polar regions. The wonderful Catherine Monaghan is doing wonderful things with her Year 3 & 4 class to bring learning alive for the pupils, amongst other things they are building an igloo in the classroom using old milk bottles, which looks amazing… the kind of teacher I wish I’d had.

Using Skype to talk to a school is something that I have done when on expedition, but never when I have been in the UK. Normally, I have gone into schools to talk directly to classes. It was a great way to interact with young people, without having to take a long time out of the ‘office’. Talking to schools is one of the highlights of my job, but the travel time to and from schools limits the amount of schools that I can visit. So, if there are more schools out there who would like to have someone who has been on expedition speak via Skype to their class, then I would be delighted to look at how we can make better use of this technology when the team is back in the UK.

Catherine put up a wonderful video of the class reflecting on what they had learnt and to my surprise I have also become a scientist!

I like to think that I am getting better at polar and ocean science, thanks to the wonderful support of Helen and Ceri, who have held my hand through being a novice a year or so ago. I even have a ‘beaker’ (polar slang for a scientist) award to prove it.

A great use of technology and thank you to Catherine (Mrs M) and Class 2 at Middleham for a great Skype chat and also to Al Humphreys for helping to put it all together.

The phenomenon of Aurora Borealis

BBC’s series Frozen Planet investigates another natural wonder of the Earth as they film scientists researching the effects of the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, on the atmosphere.

The brilliant light show that occurs every winter in the Arctic is created when the magnetic pull of the North Pole lures in electrically intense particles evaporating from the sun. As the solar wind particles collide with those of the polar region they create an aurora that  acts as a reminder of the sun’s presence during the dark days of  Arctic winters.

While Aurora Borealis captures our attention as an amazing natural phenomenon, scientists recognize that the lights possess the potential to have a negative impact on the whole Northern Hemisphere. The geometric storm can affect satellites, power grids, navigation and communication systems as well as deteriorate  oil pipelines.

A main way scientists research the relationship between the atmosphere and space environment is through launching smoke rockets into the air at bases such as the Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska. They are able to track the way the chemical trails released by the rockets are affected by the winds created from Aurora Borealis and then use their measurements to predict future space weather. Professor Dirk Lummerzheim, aurora expect from the Poker Flat Range stated that “If we can predict space weather, we can prepare for it and mitigate the dangers.”

Read more about the wonders of the Northern Lights on BBC Nature and on Frozen Plant!

Arctic Expedition on BBC

One of my roles on the Catlin Arctic Survey was to film for this documentary coming out on the BBC and Open University this week. It was quite nerve-wracking shooting my first film, with the added pressures of the Arctic environment and the fact that it is to be broadcast on the BBC. I haven’t seen it yet, and look forward to reliving the expedition through Victoria’s eyes.

Broadcast details
This weekend Dr Victoria Hill presents a BBC Earth Reporters documentary about the Catlin Arctic Survey. The programme screens on BBC World (02:30 & 09:30 28/5 or 15:30 & 21:30 29/5). If you’re unable to watch BBC World TV, you can view the programme from the Open University website from this Friday.

On Cold (Arctic blog)

‘How cold is cold?’ I asked. I felt a bit stupid. Simon, the Ice Base Manager was giving me a briefing in the sitting room of his house in late February. I had never been to the Arctic before and had no idea what to expect.

We went for a walk after lunch. The air was damp and heavy. It crawled in between my jacket and fleece, the heavy, clinging, damp cold of England. It must have been 5°C.

Simon was a polar veteran. I tried not to shiver in the relative mild.

The temperature at the Ice Base was likely to be between about -35°C, rising to about -20°C towards the end of April. I had no idea what these figures meant. Is -35°C twice as cold, three times as cold, ten times as cold? These numbers were abstract and extreme in equal measure. They accompanied me on shopping trips to buy thermal leggings and fleece jackets and entertained friends in pubs at weekends.

I am now in Resolute, one of the coldest inhabited places in the world, waiting for a flight to the Ice Base. The cold here is a sharp and dry cold that is, at first, a comfortable contrast to the stuffy and claustrophobic warmth of the hotel.

As I stretch outside, the first sensation is a stiffening brittleness in my nose as the damp exhalation freezes. Then my beard starts to feel waxy. Nose and cheeks are pinched and sting. It is -40°C, yet I do not feel cold. Ears if uncovered give off a sharp ache. The fabric on my gloves hardens. Each layer of clothing is like a piece of armour, a defence.

It is a battle to see how far the cold can penetrate from the outside and how well my body can warm from the inside. I feel cocksure wandering around town, confident that the extra chips and chocolate cake will fuel me in this fight. To battle the cold, you need energy.

If I were in London, I would be eating 2,000 calories a day to lead a normal working life. Here, I need to eat 5,000 calories a day. 3,000 calories just to fuel my body to stay warm, like feeding an extra me. On an expedition, pulling a sled, polar explorers will be consuming three times as many calories as recommended by your doctor and losing weight.

Even with the food and thermals, I feel like an invisible sprite has a frozen set of tongs and presses them to any patch of exposed flesh.
It is not colder in the Arctic. It is a different cold. Not malicious but lethal for the unwary. Do not think in terms of degrees. Imagine that the cold here is not a temperature but an animal or ice spirit, a polar djinn if you will, trying to find a way in, trying to find a weakness, biting, clawing, burning.

The team at the Ice Base put their idea of cold into words. This is what they came up with.

On Copepods (Arctic Blog)

Ceri thinks copepods are cool. I didn’t know what a copepod was. I hadn’t even heard of them before I met Ceri.

We met at Heathrow airport on the way to join the Catlin Arctic Survey and compared choices of bad films on the flight to Ottawa.

Dr Ceri Lewis of the University of Exeter drew a picture of a copepod for me on the paper table cloth of Montana’s in pink crayon. It looked like an elongated marine wood louse. (more…)

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