Visiting the Arctic with Skype in the Classroom

Every year, Digital Explorer connects teachers and students with members of the XL Catlin Arctic Live expedition based at the UK Arctic Research Station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, Norway—the most northerly permanent settlement in the world.

Classes talk to polar scientists via Skype and learn about what it’s like to work in such an extreme environment. Their last expedition was recently completed and about 100 classrooms from around the world had the opportunity to travel to the Arctic through this amazing virtual field trip.

Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop, the Director of the Digital Explorer program, talking to a classroom on Skype from the ArcticWe met with Julie Hembree, a teacher-librarian, Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert and Skype Master Teacher from Seattle, USA to discuss her students’ recent virtual trip to the Arctic.

Why did you decide to participate in this Skype virtual field trip?

Drawings of polar bears and maps of the Arctic region decorating the hallways signal the arrival of March at our school. So, when I read the announcement that teachers could sign up via Skype in the Classroom to talk with one of the polar explorers at the UK Arctic Research Station in Ny-Ålesund, I registered immediately. I am a teacher-librarian and know from many previous Skype sessions that an experience like this would be an inspiring launch activity for the first graders’ study of the Arctic habitat.

How did you prepare the students for this unique experience?

We told them that they would be speaking with a polar explorer who would tell them what it’s like to work in such an extreme location. The students prepared questions they wanted to ask Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop, the Director of the Digital Explorer program. The questions needed to be ones that weren’t readily answered on the internet.

Can you describe the day of the call?

On the day of the call, my students learned a lesson about time zones that they didn’t expect: when you do a Skype call in the morning from the west coast of the US with a person who lives nine hours away, you can’t see anything outside over there because it’s already the early evening. While the students were disappointed that they couldn’t see the landscape, they were thrilled about the question and answer experience.

Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop, the Director of the Digital Explorer program, talking to a classroom on SkypeJamie started off our Skype call explaining that the polar scientists were researching how glaciers are changing over a melt season, how they might change in the future, and the impacts that might have for sea animals in the area.

Then, we started our question and answer segment. One boy asked about the thickness of the sea ice and we were surprised by the answer: there is no sea ice around the island at all. In fact, the temperatures are so warm this year that their most difficult problem is not bone-chilling cold, but rather rain. The rain, fog, wind storms and murky days are affecting the equipment and causing a completely different set of problems.

During our twenty-five minute Skype call, Jamie answered numerous other questions about how they protect themselves from polar bears, working in the extreme cold, and their recycling and composting procedures.

A schoolboy talks to Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop, the Director of the Digital Explorer program, on SkypeWhen another student asked if they put ice in their drinks there, we learned some fun facts about iceberg ice. Jamie’s answer got lots of giggles from the crowd. Apparently, iceberg chunks make a fun hissing sound when the ice melts in water and the air is released after being trapped for thousands of years.

What impact did this virtual field trip have on your students?

For many children, that single ice chunk story will be the one they remember from the experience and that’s okay. These conversations with scientists thousands of miles away highlight the impact of virtual field trips. The likelihood of any of us actually traveling to the Arctic is slim at best. However, through Skype virtual field trips, students can have the next best thing: they can virtually be in Svalbard, talk to the experts in the field, and experience science as it’s happening in the moment.

We ended our call with cheers and claps. Comments like “That was awesome!” “It was fun!” “The best day ever!’ “I loved it because he (Jamie) can explain things to us” let us all know the impact of the experience.

Indeed, the lessons from this Skype virtual field trip extend beyond the call. The Digital Explorers have created frozen ocean resources which teachers can download and use in their classrooms. When our students started studying polar glaciers in class this week, they were able to get a 360-degree view of a scientist rappelling into a glacier from the UK Arctic Research Station in Ny-Ålesund. As one little boy told me, “It was fun because we actually saw him and didn’t just see it in a book.” Skype in in the Classroom can bring learning to life!


Teachers: Bring fun and excitement in your classroom by inviting experts or participating in virtual field trips in honor of upcoming Earth Day so your students can learn more about our beautiful planet.

You can also take the Virtual Field Trips with Skype in the Classroom Course to learn all about how to participate in a live virtual field trip experience. You will also get 500 points towards your Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE) badge.

Parents: Why not ask your school to get involved with Skype in the Classroom so your kids can experience the world live from their classrooms!