In early December, a team of polar enthusiasts from the School of Biology in St Andrews (Dr Sonja Heinrich, Dr Rebecca Kinnear and 5 postgraduate students), visited St Columba’s R C Primary School in Cupar. As part of the UK’s “Polar Explorer STEM Programme”, St Columba’s pupils had spent the last couple of months learning all about the Polar Regions. (If you are curious about the Polar Explorer STEM Programme, do check out their website, it looks like a fantastic online resource for educators or curious grown-ups alike!) And what better way to learn about Antarctica than to invite a bunch of scientists who actually study it?

Even with the winter holidays approaching, we managed to gather a rather diverse group of students consisting of Haley and Vicki, two current PhD candidates who had completed the Antarctic fieldtrip as part of their undergraduate honours degree at St Andrews, Rowan and Mikhail from the MSc MMS Programme, and I (Becks) from the MSc EMMS Programme. We current MSc students will be going to Antarctica in March, and were able to use this opportunity to practice our knowledge and outreach skills, as well as learn plenty of new and useful things from Antarctic alumni Haley and Vicki.

The outreach day had been much anticipated, and carefully planned by Sonja and Rebecca, who had designed plenty of activities for a variety of ages. We made sure to arrive before most pupils so we had time to set up everything, including hanging some of Sonja’s beautiful collection of handmade cloth animals across the gym walls. The animals were a huge success and caused much debate amongst the students, who had trouble deciding not only what exactly they were looking at, but also what animal was coolest. (We were all proud to spot at least a couple of pupils who were really excited about the slightly-oversize but nevertheless “suuuper coooool” penguin. That’s right kids, penguins rock.)

A life-sized (model of a) minke whale in the school’s gym. Picture Credit: Vicki Balfour and Rebecca Kinnear

But life-sized cloth animals were only the beginning. Vicki and Haley, who had been to Antarctica last year, gave a presentation on their trip in front of the entire school. With many pictures and a funny video, the pupils were able to imagine what it is that scientists actually do in Antarctica. They learned just how long it takes to get from Fife to the Antarctic Peninsula (around 3 days including lay-overs), how rough the trip on the ship can be (very), and what crabeater seals eat (Hint: not crabs!). But it wasn’t just the primary school pupils and teachers who learned something new that day; I dare say all of us MSc students got some valuable insights also. I, for one, will be making sure to watch out for photobombing penguins, which apparently happens more often than one would imagine.

Vicki and Haley showing all the stops on the way from Fife to Antarctica. Picture Credit: Vicki Balfour and Rebecca Kinnear.

After the presentation, we quickly transformed the gym from an auditorium into science stations where some of the school’s classes could gain some hands-on experience. The stations covered a variety of topics designed to help the pupils appreciate the various adaptations of animals to their environment, and how the Antarctic ecosystem functions.

Rowan having a lot of fun showing different “teeth” of Antarctic marine mammals. Photo credit: Rebecca Kinnear.

At the food web station, Rowan talked the pupils through the different types of food available in Antarctica, and how one might go about eating them. Using plastic replica skulls of the smaller predatory mammals, as well as rice puffs and a comb, the children were able to explore different ways of “catching” different foods.

The Antarctic food web in action: A pupil being consumed by a leopard seal (skull replica), with the assistance of Sonja (Disclaimer: no children were harmed in the production of this photo). Photo credit: Rebecca Kinnear.

At the warmth and insulation station it was all hands on – there were feathers aplenty and an entire bucket full of ice water to play with. Using locally sourced seagull feathers and some water, I was able to demonstrate the insulation strategies of birds. But the really exciting part was definitely the veggie lard glove carefully crafted by Rebecca to mimic the effectiveness of the fat layer used by many marine mammals for insulation against the ice water.

Comparing ice water temperatures with and without blubber insulation (veggie lard glove). Photo credit: Rebecca Kinnear.

At the sound station, pupils moved through the Antarctic ecosystem – by sound. From land to the open sea, animals in Antarctica make distinct sounds, but not always the ones you might expect. The pupils were amazed to find donkeys in Antarctica. Turns out that Gentoo penguins sound remarkably like donkeys…

Mikhail having fun playing animal sounds to the pupils. Photo credit: Rebecca Kinnear.

The guessing game – which animal sounds like a donkey? Photo credit: Rebecca Kinnear.

One table over, Haley and Vicki used pictures, string, and the life-sized cloth animals to show different sizes of animals that live in Antarctica, and one local porpoise. Our findings confirm: A minke whale is about 5-6 children long. At this station the children learned also about forms of crypsis – the art of concealing oneself from predator or prey by blending into the surroundings. Parents beware, your children now know how to hide even better…


Haley and Vicki using photographs to introduce the children to Antarctic animals. Photo credit: Rebecca Kinnear.

As you can see, we probably had just as much fun as the pupils. They were an incredible audience, and had many, many questions ready for us. I would like to extend a big thank you to St Columba’s R C Primary School in Cupar – we were all very grateful to have been invited to such a welcoming school full of curious pupils (and teachers!). Also, on behalf of the MSc students, we would like to thank the Sonja and Rebecca for inviting us and letting us partake in this great opportunity.

written by Becks Konijnenberg

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