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Getting the word out

Exploratorium tells stories about the polar regions using multimedia approach

Two years ago, while aboard a Russian research vessel cruising around the South Shetland Islands, a chain of isles about 120 kilometers northwest of the Antarctic Peninsula, Cassandra Brooks sent detailed e-mails to friends and family about her first trip to the Antarctic.

This past austral summer, Brooks, a graduate student in marine science at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California, returned to the Scotia Sea on the R/V Yuzhmorgeologiya to help survey krill populations, part of the U.S. Antarctic Marine Living Resources program. The information the scientists collect about the shrimplike crustacean will help create sustainable management practices of this important fishery.

On this trip, Brooks wanted to bring more people along on the adventure, so she volunteered to work as a multimedia correspondent for the San Francisco-based science museum, the Exploratorium.

“I’ve always strongly believed in outreach,” says Brooks, who plans to work eventually in science journalism. “I don’t really see the point in doing science if you’re not going to make that available for everybody. You use that [information] for management, of course, but I think you can help people make really good decisions, especially consumers if you educate them.”

Mary Miller views the outreach supported by the Exploratorium as a way to give scientists a voice that might otherwise go unheard.

“I think [young scientists] feel like they have a bigger purpose, a mission almost, to educate younger people and have people understand what they do,” says Miller, the principal investigator for an International Polar Year (IPY) project called Ice Stories, funded by the National Science Foundation.

The project promotes public awareness about IPY, an international science campaign focused on the polar regions, using a multimedia Web approach that features blogs by scientists in the field and live Webcasts from remote areas of Antarctica and the Arctic.

Richard “Chico” Perales knows a bit about both regions. He worked a series of jobs for the U.S. Antarctic Program from 1990 to 2005, and started making trips north in 2003 supporting science in the Arctic. He is the only non-scientist sending blogs back from the field for the Exploratorium.

“I thought it was a great opportunity,” Perales said over the phone from Barrow, Alaska, where he is currently involved in the planning and installation of infrastructure for a hydrology project that will help researchers understand the role of soil moisture in controlling ecosystem carbon balance. “I wanted to do [the Exploratorium reports] from a different angle.”

Founded in 1969 by Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium is a museum of science, art and human perception with a focus on public education. It’s been online since 1993, and its Web site averages more than 27 million visitors per year.

“It’s been a really important part of the museum’s outreach to the world,” Miller says of the Exploratorium’s Web presence. “It’s not just about visitors coming in, but it’s about the museum going out.”

Miller will lead a small team from the Exploratorium out to Antarctica during the 2008-09 summer field season to report on the variety of research under way. She last visited the continent in 2001 on a similar project that used the Web to educate and inform the public about polar research.

“It’s amazing to me that you can walk down a hallway in Crary Lab [the main science building at McMurdo Station], and if there’s a door open, poke your head in and start talking to somebody, and all of a sudden you’re in the middle of some really extraordinary science story,” she says.

Miller herself has a background in marine science, but like Brooks, decided to go into communications, attending a science journalism program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s been at the Exploratorium for 17 years, and has worked on the Web end of things since 1996.

“It’s been a continually evolving, fun thing because my position there is for the public understanding of science,” she says, explaining few museums cover current research like the Exploratorium. “What I try to do is work with research scientists, and when I go to different locations, I try to bring that alive to people. So if you read a newspaper story you have more context and background into what goes into discoveries.”

The public has already gotten a pretty good look into some of those discoveries via the blogs posted by field researchers, which includes audio and video recordings, in addition to text and photos. The Exploratorium has also done about a dozen live video teleconferences about big IPY projects like ANDRILL, a geologic drilling project trying to learn more about the advance and retreat of ice sheets millions of years ago during a warmer period on the planet — one that could repeat itself in the next century.

“You have to embrace different ways of telling stories, using image and videos, and interactive maps,” notes Miller, who hosts some of the live Web broadcasts. “You have to bring that all to bear if you want to make an impression on people. It’s challenging to corral all of that stuff. It’s much more complicated than it used to be.”

The scientists recruited to serve as correspondents learn about some of those challenges during a weeklong workshop hosted by the Exploratorium. Exploratorium staff and other media professionals teach them how to shoot and edit video, operate a camera, and, perhaps most importantly, tell a compelling story.

“It’s not just about how to use a camera,” says Lisa Strong, the video producer for the Antarctic-bound Exploratorium team. “They learn about aesthetics … how to frame a shot.”

Ron Hipschman, a senior media specialist at the Exploratorium who handles the IT and technical issues for the Ice Stories team, noted the workshop participants matured quickly in a short time. “It was interesting to watch from the beginning to the end of the workshop to see how much more refined their storytelling became.”

Nadine Quintana-Krupinski got the Cliff’s Notes version of the workshop last year before she deployed to Antarctica due to a time crunch. A graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Quintana-Krupinski worked on a research team studying ice sheet dynamics, and the particular effect subglacial lakes and hydrology play in speeding glacial movement. The project’s principal investigator, Slawek Tulaczyk, also served as an Ice Stories correspondent.

“On a personal level, I think it’s fun for me to do. It’s fun to share with people what’s going on out there. But I think it’s important for people to get a sense of why people do this research,” says Quintana-Krupinski. “I think people have an outdated idea, or a different idea, of how science is done. I think it’s good for people to see how one set of scientists work.”

Her blog entries, audio files and pictures describe and illustrate the conditions under which the scientists labored for about three weeks in a remote field camp in West Antarctica near the Whillians Ice Stream. The reports included everything from how to cook dinner to how the team used GPS and seismometer instruments to monitor the relationship between the ice stream and water beneath.

Quintana-Krupinski says she wants people to understand there’s more to polar science than penguins. “Some of it is important for kids in school to see that science just isn’t grey-haired old men,” she adds. “It’s all kinds of people. It’s young people like me and people from all over. It’s important for kids to see they can be scientists, too.”

For Perales, the project field coordinator in the Arctic, he wants the public to understand that climate change is for real and affects real people, like the native Iñupiaq in Barrow who still strive to live a traditional lifestyle in a ecologically changing world.

“Climate change is affecting the culture,” he says. “It’s going to continue to affect them.”

NSF-funded research in this story: Mary Miller, the Exploratorium; and Slawek Tulaczyk, University of California, Santa Cruz.
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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs