One of the biggest challenges about going to the polar regions as an educator is then trying to come up with methods of teaching about the region that allows students to immerse themselves in the environment. This is exactly the question that I had to grapple with myself after traveling to Iceland as a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow in the summer of 2017. The competitive fellowship offers teachers the opportunity to travel to some of the most remote regions of the world with Lindblad Expeditions. Upon their return, teachers are expected to develop educational materials based on their experience for use in their own classrooms and to share with fellow educators.

With the traditional mediums of film and video it might be possible to give students a sense of the polar regions now, but one of the things I really wanted to be able to convey to my students was the changes that have been going on in the Arctic region. Being a geography Teacher the most logical thing that I could think of is using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing to help my students explore the Polar regions without having to leave the classroom.

One of the most important things we try and get our students to do in geography is to recognize spatial patterns, relationships, and distributions. To help with this I made a series of web maps using ArcGIS online, which has been made freely available to K-12 educators by Esri. Framing the maps using the five themes of geography (movement, place, location, region, and Human-Environment Interactions), I made maps that specifically focused on the physical characteristics of Iceland (place), and the ways that the people of Iceland have affected the environment and adapted to it (Human Environment Interactions). With the compiled story map students are able to look at the relationship between Iceland’s geology, specifically the impact of volcanoes and plate tectonics on the shaping of the landscape. They are also able to see the widespread impact on the environment that native Icelanders and the many tourists who visit every year have had. Learn more about how you can use Esri mapping software in your own classroom.

A constant topic of discussion we encountered all over Iceland was how much and how quickly the landscape has changed. Everywhere we went locals would share about how ice caps were shrinking, animal populations have shifted or even disappeared, and how humans have changed the landscape. Short of bringing all the people we talked to back to the classroom, it would have been difficult to share all of these perspectives with students otherwise without the help of geospatial technologies.

The Google Earth Engine time lapse tool gives an aerial view of locations around the world from as far back as 1984 up until the present. I have my students type in Sólheimajökull Glacier in the search bar on top of the map. They can see the rapid retreat of this glacier in southern Iceland over the last 40 years.

Sólheimajökull Glacier 2020
Sólheimajökull Glacier 1985

Additional glaciers in Alaska, Greenland, the Andes, Himalayas, and Antarctica can also be investigated with this tool. By doing so, they are able to see that glaciers are receding everywhere. This type of activity offers a lot of opportunities for students to ask questions, and explore for themselves how human activity is affecting the planet.

Although it is most ideal to be able to bring our students to the polar regions, this is not always feasible. Instead, we have got to be creative in bringing the polar regions to our students. This is increasingly important as the impacts of global climate change are becoming more and more unavoidable. Through giving students the opportunity to immerse themselves more in the environment this can help us build environmental empathy in our students to help them see their connection to the polar regions.

Kyle Tredinnick is an adjunct instructor for the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the Department of Geography and Geology, and a high school social studies teacher for Omaha Public Schools. Visit his website for a variety of teaching resources.