When Niskayuna High School seniors Nate Wiegman and Zack Wistort traveled to Greenland last summer with their science teacher Paul Scott, they were guests of the National Science Foundation participating in Science in Education, an annual week-long field trip that brings together high school students and teachers from the U.S.A., Greenland, and Denmark to learn about arctic science in Greenland. They knew glaciers would be on the program, and they imagined they would rub shoulders with prominent climate scientists.
But they never expected to discover such deep, individual passions for earth sciences, to develop enduring friendships with peers from Greenland and Denmark, or to join mid-career geologists at one of their most important annual conferences and present two posters on the experience.
Applying The Lessons At Home
Both boys wrote their college admissions essays on their trip to Greenland, they keep in touch with their foreign friends via Skype, and this fall they traveled to Denver to the Geological Society of America conference in Denver to give the scientists in whose footsteps they hope to follow a glimpse about that life-changing week.
"To us, the whole point of it [SciEd week] was to take our experiences and bring them back to our communities and share what we learned," said Zack.
Nate agreed: "It was an amazing experience being up there and I felt obligated to tell other people about it."
Presenting Data to the Professionals
The boys built two compelling posters. The first is titled "Global Climate Change Studies on the Greenland Ice Sheet," and it provides an overview of the research they observed and learned about as well as the water chemistry measurements they took using equipment they brought from New York.
The science poster is a snapshot of some of the forefront research being conducted in Greenland: cloud research operating out of Summit Station's Mobile Science Facility; albedo measurements, measurements of black carbon, carbon dioxide, and other gases from the Temporary Atmospheric Watch Observatory (TAWO); nitrogen measurements from the FLUX facility; ice coring at the North Greenland Eemian Ice Coring Station (NEEM).
Inclement weather almost prevented the stop at NEEM, but at the last minute, the group was flown to the station where they had an hour to observe and explore. Both Nate and Zack made the most of their limited time.
"It was really hectic, but it was amazing to run in and experience the whole thing," said Zach. "It's incredible that they can tell so much about the climate from the drilling."
Their second poster discussed the Greenland culture and Summit Station logistics. The two were captivated by the Greenlandic culture, which is vastly different from their own. Greenland is virtually roadless and the food includes reindeer. At home, cars—not dogsleds pulled by huskies—are standard and pizza, not narwhal, is what's for dinner. Greenland traffic signs warn of big shaggy beasts blocking the roads.
Summit Station, the year-round NSF-supported research station located at 10,600 feet on the Greenland ice sheet, is a self-contained camp that supports myriad scientists. The boys said they "were impressed with the ingenuity and technology required to operate a research station in this unforgiving environment." While there they learned how the station warms outhouses (painting them black), deals with snowdrifts and access to buildings (building them high above the ground), makes water (melting tons of snow with waste heat from the camp generator), and more.
The quality and attention to detail in both posters underscores the boys' intellectual curiosity and powerful observations. Their pictures and accompanying text communicate the complicated science they learned about, the interesting place they visited, and the respect they obviously developed for their many hosts.
In conversation, the boys are well spoken and friendly, and their memories of Greenland are punctuated with superlatives. "It was so amazing!" "We are thrilled and excited to tell anyone we can about it." "This was a great experience."
Now, having crossed the GSA conference off their list, the boys are preparing to present their posters to their own school. Working with their teacher, Mr. Scott, they're preparing to address the student body.
And in the meantime, they're preparing to go to college next fall where they both profess an interest in pursuing some aspect of climate science.
A Proud Teacher
Their enthusiasm and drive doesn't surprise Mr. Scott, who handpicked them for the SciEd trip.
"Zack and Nate are hard-working, curious, reliable, teachable, responsible, and intelligent," said Mr. Scott. "I knew they were interested in science and felt this trip might confirm their future studies."
Mr. Scott sums it up this way: "This trip was the single greatest thing they have done in their high school career. Because of this trip, they are ready to try anything. It is great to see."
And it wasn't just Nate and Zack who benefited, he said.
"It was great for me too," said Mr. Scott. "I love to see young people interested in the world, science, different cultures, and wanting to make an impact. I am lucky to have students like this around. It is what I most love about my job." —Rachel Walker