Polar Explorer – A Virtual Learning Environment for Polar Science Education

Deborah Huntzinger
Associate Professor
Northern Arizona University

Need: We recently began a 5-year IUSE project to develop a new digital learning environment called Polar Explorer. The Arctic is underlain by permafrost, a layer of soil or sediment that is perennially frozen. Thawing permafrost can release enormous amounts of previously frozen greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, accelerating the pace of climate change. It can also threaten the food security of local residents, lead to the erosion of landscapes, the collapse of buildings and roads, and increased risk of wildfires. Thus, climate warming is transforming the Arctic, and this transformation can have profound impacts on ecosystems, infrastructure, global climate, and public health. However, teaching students about permafrost and its consequences is challenging because of the remoteness and inaccessibility of the Arctic, as well as the complex changes that are occurring across many different spatial and temporal scales.

Guiding Questions: Through innovative learning design and immersive virtual technologies, Polar Explorer will provide a novel and transformative approach for improving STEM education; one that will cultivate a sense of curiosity and connection-to-place among learners and will generate new knowledge about STEM teaching and learning through education research. The goal of this project is to design, build, deploy, and evaluate the effectiveness of Polar Explorer at increasing student conceptual knowledge of permafrost, its dynamics, and the consequences of permafrost degradation. Polar Explorer will consist of a suite of Learning Experiences (LXs) built around interactive Virtual Field Trips (iVFTs), connected via a high-resolution rendered landscape generated from real Arctic terrain data. Eight place-based LXs will teach students about permafrost dynamics, indigenous perspectives on changing landscapes, and impacts of permafrost thaw on infrastructure, climate, and human health. Students will have autonomy in choosing their learning path through the LXs, which will leverage virtual reality technology, an engaging narrative, real scientists, and real-world data and places to provide context to student learning. An intelligent tutoring system will individualize the student experience and help address conceptual gaps in knowledge. Polar Explorer’s iVFTs will effectively promote active, inquiry-based learning and resolve the substantial accessibility challenges inherent to polar science.

Outcomes: It is predicted that students will: (1) increase their polar science disciplinary knowledge; (2) examine and differentiate multiple scales; and (3) improve their comprehension of transdisciplinary connections in polar science. Polar Explorer will run on HTML5 and target students in critical undergraduate introductory STEM courses, such as geology, earth science, climate, and biology. This project will also provide much needed metrics on the degree to which iVFTs and adaptive digital learning environments, and the associated approach to learning design, promote STEM learning.

Broader Impacts: Polar Explorer will also increase accessibility of polar science research to a diverse population of students regardless of physical ability, gender, race, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity. Woven into Polar Explorer will be profiles of a diverse group of real scientists and their personal stories. These profiles will demonstrate to students that scientists come from all races, genders, and cultural backgrounds and have the potential to develop a more diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce.


Chris Mead, Arizona State University, Tempe AZ; Lisa Thompson, University of Arizona, Tucson AZ, Geoffrey Bruce, Arizona State University, Tempe AZ; Ariel Anbar; Arizona State University, Tempe AZ; Michelle Mack, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff AZ, Kevin Schaefer, University of Colorado at Boulder, CO, Victor Leshyk Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff AZ, Wendy Taylor, Arizona State University, Tempe AZ.