Association of Polar Early Career Scientists


Sciullo Luana Polar Outreach Blog 2015

Science has always been a fundamental subject taught in every curriculum beginning from an early age. It never ceases to amaze me, however, how much of an understanding of ecology and the environment these students seem to grasp at a much younger age than I can recall. Since environmental issues like climate change have been at the forefront of various media outlets, it is no surprise that students are being taught the basics of climate change, its effects, and where these impacts are most detrimental. Engaging in youth outreach with respect to environmental issues, and specifically the effects of climate change, must extend somewhat beyond these basics therefore, to help engage a younger audience and encourage them to always continue to ask questions.

As a PhD researcher focusing on polar bear diet and body condition in the Canadian Arctic, my research goes hand in hand with the potential negative effects of climate change. I have had the opportunity to write numerous blog entries for Earth Rangers - an organization that promotes environmental research and conservation while engaging and educating a young audience. Volunteering with Earth Rangers has allowed me step out of the mindset that I am most frequently in, which involves scientific journal writing in which the audience usually consists of experts in the field. Now, my goal was to write about my research in a way that not only children could easily follow, but also gradually introduce them to more complex topics that extend beyond the general facts about polar bears and climate change that they had previously learned. 

My blog entries usually begin by describing a little bit about the fieldwork that we do to collect our data in Churchill, Manitoba. By painting a very vivid picture about our surroundings (the environment, climate), the type of information we are collecting (fat samples from the bears, morphometric measures) and how (tools used, helicopters to locate the bears), children can imagine these scenarios which can better help them to understand the actual reasons why we are doing this type of research. Following this, I then begin to discuss the actual questions we are asking and address how the collection of various samples from polar bears in the field can help answer these questions. Firstly, we are looking at polar bear diet over a broad time scale (twenty years) in a specific area (Churchill, Manitoba - the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears). We use a small fat sample from the rump of each bear and are able to determine both diet (type of prey they are eating) and body condition (how much fat is in the sample which reflects the amount of fat in the bear). The actual details of the diet analysis are usually much more complex than I can provide in a blog for elementary school students, so instead of being bogged down by the scientific jargon I discuss the potential for polar bear diet to change due to melting sea ice which could affect how successful they are at hunting their seal prey. 

By writing for a younger audience, I have realized that keeping the information provided at the most basic level is not always wise. Elementary school students are learning so much more about our environment than in the past, and providing them with simple definitions will likely not keep them engaged. It is important firstly to know the age range of students you would be writing for and from there assume that basic definitions have usually already been covered in a classroom setting. We can then begin to discuss more complex topics that build on this previous knowledge, thereby allowing students to open their minds further to environmental and conservation based research and fully begin to understand how interconnected we truly are to our surroundings.

Luana Sciullo is a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, Canada under the direction of Dr. Gregory Thiemann. Her research focuses on polar bear body condition in the Western Hudson Bay region and she is frequently involved in outreach activities.

Photo credit- Polar bear cubs, L. Sciullo 

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