Students from five high schools in Winnipeg got first-hand experience using digital imaging technology to study Arctic animals at Assiniboine Park Zoo Thursday. 

Using the "whisker imaging" technique, students took pictures of the zoo's nine polar bears. They then uploaded their images into facial recognition software in the Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre. The software compares the pattern made from the whisker pores on the bears' faces to identify the bear in the photo.

Marissa Hanlin, a Grade 9 student at Kelvin High School, was a student leader for the day's program but it's not the first Arctic project she's been involved in. She has traveled to Churchill once already to see the polar bears. She says it can be easy for people living in a big city like Winnipeg to get disconnected from their environment.

"I think it's really important for the younger generations to be apart of research and climate change, because we have a new perspective. We're seeing that our future is going to be this too," said Hanlin. 

Polar bear pictures

High school students take pictures of polar bears at Assiniboine Park Zoo Thursday to learn how to identify and study the Arctic animals. (CBC)

Scientists say whisker imagery is a less invasive way of tracking polar bears to see how many bears may be in a certain areas of the north and to see whether certain bears return to the same areas. Different behavioural patterns and how other influences like the presence of people and tourists could affect their behavior. The technology also allows scientists to monitor bears' body size and their health as environmental conditions change. 

Today's activity took place during Science Oyssey, a 10-day event hosted by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to engage and inspire young people by highlighting achievements in the sciences.

"We want to train a bunch of keen minds so when they are in university we have great students to do research for us," said Stephen Peterson, head of conservation and research at the zoo. "We want to get them thinking about science and how much work goes into the results that they see."

A handful of students at today's event will be participating in research expeditions this summer and fall. Hanlin  will be on a two-week expedition this fall and on another with classmates in October. She's excited. 

"It's such a great experience to see the polar bears and the foxes and the seals in real life," said Hanlin.