Penn State

Catching cold: Polar Day helps spread interest in Arctic

Jennifer Miksis-Olds plays recordings of from underwater in the polar regions during Polar Day at Penn State on March 27, 2015.
Jennifer Miksis-Olds plays recordings of from underwater in the polar regions during Polar Day at Penn State on March 27, 2015. CDT photo

The iceberg floated on the surface of the water while the sounds of sea lions and cracking ice echoed from nearby.

It wasn’t the Arctic. It wasn’t Antarctica either. This was Polar Day at Penn State.

At McCoy Natatorium, students from middle and high schools gathered to learn about the different kinds of science and exploration being done in the frigid climates at the planet’s extremes.

“We want people to pay attention to the polar regions in terms of relevance, and how important they are, and really just cool,” said Pernille Sporon Boving, outreach coordinator at Penn State’s Polar Center.

In one pool, a bright yellow, remotely operated vehicle with spinning propellers and headlight eyes navigated around a Styrofoam iceberg.

Buzz Scott, of, helped students steer through the water the same way his group does in the field. Davis Piazza and Jadon Wilson, Park Forest Middle School eighth-graders, used the joystick control to pilot the craft.

“It was kind of like flying an RC helicopter,” Wilson said.

Laura Radville is a graduate student at the Polar Center. She understood exactly what some of the students were experiencing.

“I’ve always just been fascinated by polar bears and caribou,” she said. “My uncle took a trip to the Arctic when I was 14 or 15 and I just fell in love.”

That is the kind of lifelong passion Boving is hoping to see born in the students coming to the program, and that’s why she wants it to be about engaging the imagination more than driving home statistics.

“I don’t want to see any graphs today. That’s not the point,” she said.

The program, like the Polar Center, is not tied to any one area of interest.

“It’s not just about climate change. It’s across disciplines,” Boving said.

There was plenty of science. Jennifer Miksis-Olds, co-director of the Center for Marine Science and Technology, took the kids on a journey through the sounds of the polar regions, from water and ice to whales and seals.

At the HUB-Robeson Center, the fields opened to show even more areas of interest. There was photography as National Geographic contributing photographer Joel Sartore talked about “Witnessing Change: Making Sense of Global Warming.”

There was music as Penn State professor Mark Ballora translated data collected from the body temperatures of hibernating Arctic squirrels into sound. There was history, as Penn State Abington anthropologist P.J. Capelotti spoke about the rich tradition of polar explorers who have come from Pennsylvania.

Shelli Berry teaches college-level biology at Curwensville Area High School. She brought her students to explore something that isn’t really part of a textbook.

“The idea of global temperature change doesn’t get much attention in high school,” she said.

Radville hopes the event interests more kids in getting their feet wet in polar studies.

“You start imaging what it’s like to be in this icy place,” she said. “It’s one of the last places you feel like you’re really exploring.”