Aboard the Amundsen: Back to high school

Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca's regional journalist for Ottawa, is spending seven days on the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen, a scientific research icebreaker in the Amundsen Gulf.

Tuesday, March 11
by Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca

After days spent reliving grad school amongst the Master's and Ph.D. students on board, I decide to regress a bit and hang out with a group of high school students.

The Schools on Board outreach program has brought Canadian students onto the Amundsen for the past three years, but this week marks the first time students from other countries have been involved.

Bringing in seven students and five teachers not just from Canada but also Spain, China, England and the U.S. hasn't been easy for program leaders Lucette Barber and Robin Gislason. Of the eight international participants, five lost their luggage, one lost her passport, and four had flights re-routed on the way to their original rendezvous point in Winnipeg. In addition, some of the international participants have a shaky grasp of English, leading to communication challenges and frustrations.

By Tuesday, though, Barber and Gislason say they are pleased with the way everyone has settled in to life aboard the ship and insist the trouble was well worth it.

I start the day with Allie Wolter, 18, of Kent, Wash., Dan Matchullis, 17, of Manitou, Man., and Mingfeng Zhou, of Qingdao, China, who are on a chilly upper deck taking scientific measurements as the sun rises. They are recording the temperature of devices called pyranometers that they built from styrofoam, wiring and Christmas tree ornaments during a lab exercise.

The homemade pyranometers sit close to a couple of real ones, which measure the amount of solar energy hitting the surface of the earth at any given time. The students are supposed to take measurements three times a day for several days and then compare the results to those of a real pyranometer.

A commercial pyranometer measures the energy from the sun as it rises over the ice. (Emily Chung, CBC)

The students spend part of their day on organized activities such as lab exercises and lectures from scientists, and part of their day shadowing the researchers.

It's a busy schedule. In the morning, I follow Emma Brown, 17, of Wirral, England and Alison Kapalie, 17, of Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, to the –23 C cold lab where they help one scientist slice and prepare ice samples so their salt content can be measured. Next, I go with Patti Alvarez, 16, and Alysa Almojuela, 17, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, to a large hole that the researchers have cut into the ice about 400 metres from the ship. There, the researchers take water samples and lower nets to catch fish and zooplankton.

After lunch, I trail Dan Matchullis as he shadows another researcher testing a machine that measures carbon dioxide before it gets deployed on the ice.

Mingfeng Zhou, 17, leans over a homemade pyranometer to take temperature measurements. (Emily Chung, CBC)

Afterward, the students attend a workshop on communicating science with local aboriginal communities and the media. I help out with the media part, fielding some questions before the coordinators ask the students how many of them were interviewed by journalists before heading aboard the ship. A sea of hands goes up.

Later that day, four of the students face the microphone of a certain CBC reporter, and from their polished responses, I realize they either learn very fast or didn't need the workshop at all. Of course, that interview was also just a warm up. Tomorrow, the students are to participate in a web conference from the ship to mark March 12 as International Polar Year Day.