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Arctic Classroom: An Interview with Celebrated Polar Explorer Will Steger

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Where There's a Will, There's a Way

If you haven't heard of Will Steger, you should have.

He mounted the first unsupported dogsled expedition to the North Pole, the longest unsupported dogsled trekStegerwithdog.jpg in history (1,600 miles through Greenland), the first dogsled expedition across Antarctica (all 3,471 miles) and the first Antarctic crossing on foot (!). Along the way, he has witnessed at close hand the dramatic effects of rapid climate change in some of the world's remotest places. He recently spoke with Public School Insights about his ongoing work to share the impact of climate change with K-12 teachers and students nationwide.

At 63, he has no plans to slow down. As I write this, he is beginning day five of a 1,400-mile dogsled expedition to the disappearing ice shelves in Ellesmere Island, the northernmost point of North America. Joining him on this journey are five members of what he calls the "emerging leaders' generation": twenty-somethings who will secure the future of environmentalism. Teachers and students can follow the expedition's progress through daily video dispatches on www.globalwarming101.com.

In our interview, Steger displays none of the bravado typical of adventurers who make headlines for solo transatlantic baloon-crossings or the like. A former high-school science teacher, he instead focuses on the potential of his polar expeditions to invigorate science education while raising young people's awareness of humans' impact on the environment.

[The image above links to Ellesmere expedition videos in a new window]

His interview offers a mix of pessimism and hope. On the one hand, he argues that the rapidity of climate change has surprised even him, bringing the world to a tipping point beyond which environmental damage will only accelerate. On the other, he sees global warming as an unparalleled teaching opportunity. Never before--not even in the oft-invoked Sputnik era--have we had greater motivation to rally our nation and our students around the need for scientific achievement. We know more than we ever have about human impact on the environment, new technologies can help us mitigate that impact, and the urgency to act fast is real. Talk about relevant, real-world learning....

By the way, Steger's message isn't for science teachers alone. English teachers will be happy to hear that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn first sparked Steger's interest in exploration.

Hear a recording of highlights from the interview [5 minutes]

[Or read a transcript of these highlights below]

Hear the entire interview [16 1/2 minutes]:

Or listen to the following excerpts:


PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What originally fueled your interest in polar exploration?

STEGER: Ever since I can remember, I was interested in exploration, pioneering, nature, and so forth. And I really think it was a combination of several things. One was pictures of National Geographic, pictures of mountains and expeditions. And the "Adventures of Huck Finn" was my first book. That was actually a life-changing book, because I ended up taking a motorboat down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to New Orleans when I was 15, along with my older brother, who was 17.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: So what made you become interested in climate change?

STEGER: I've kept track of weather all my life, and that's really played an important role as an explorer. I make life and death decisions by my knowledge of weather, and I could apply that, let's say, crossing the Arctic Ocean or crossing Antarctica, doing expeditions that have never been done or even been thought of before.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Having undertaken some of these expeditions what kinds of environmental change have you witnessed?

STEGER: Well, it's pretty obvious in the Arctic regions, because I've been traveling up there for 45 years. What we're seeing on the Arctic Ocean is that we're starting to lose sea ice in the summertime. 20 years ago, when we made our first unsupported expedition to the Pole, it was pretty much a normal year. Very cold, like Admiral Perry would have had at the turn of the century. Now, 20 years later, it's very difficult to reach the North Pole without some form of flotation in the wintertime. And I would say within ten years it will probably be impossible to reach the North Pole by dog team without flotation. That is really a major change. And I've been an eyewitness observer of this and a participant in it.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: So do you think we're past the tipping point?

STEGER: I think we're on the tipping point. I think we have less than ten years. We have to make a really rapid change here. The worst thing that can happen is that people will look at this as hopeless. It's human nature, when you're looking at a hopeless situation, to not act and to put your head in the sand. But rather, we've got to do the opposite. We all, individually, have got to move on this quickly.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You mentioned you were a high school teacher of science. How are you using this vocation to talk about global warming to the nation's youth?

STEGER: Since I was 7, 8 years old I sort of knew education was my vocation. For teachers, we have a responsibility to teach our children and to prepare them for the future. I think that global warming is an educational tool in a way, because it affects all walks of life. It's a fascinating teaching aid, it's current, and I think it's extremely important and timely that we use it appropriately.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Tell me about your expedition to Ellesmere Island. Does this have an educational component to it?

STEGER: I'm leaving for a 65‑day expedition by dog team to Ellesmere Island, which is the northernmost part of the North American continent. Our objective is to dogsled about a 1400‑mile round trip to the last of the ice shelves in the northern hemisphere. These now are starting to break off and rapidly disappearing.

[The Will Steger Foundation's] primary educational target is K-12 education, but we're also concentrating on what we're calling the "emerging leaders generation," which is basically the Y generation. I would define that from 16 up to upper 20s. On this expedition, we're traveling with their peers, six of them from four countries.

We have several objectives. One is to bring our audience, via the Internet, to the front lines of global warming, right where the ice shelves are now breaking off. Our second and third objectives are kind of interlinked. One, we want to really activate the Internet social networks that younger people communicate with. Two, through those communication networks, I see a huge potential of driving this global warming movement and, more than that moving people-younger people, everybody-to take action on global warming.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You mentioned that you're going to be giving people access to your experiences in this expedition via the Internet. Is there a specific place they should go?

STEGER: Our Web site is globalwarming101.com. Go on there, there are lessons posted. You can follow us and activate those lessons as we're going-there's resources and links.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you have any other education projects on your horizon?

STEGER: I have pretty much a solid two‑year program. Next year, 2009, we have two expeditions across Greenland. Greenland is extremely important because of the Greenland ice cap. And then during school year 2010 we have a couple expeditions in Antarctica, so we'll be staying with the ice caps and polar areas on our eyewitness account, along with the Web site and the lesson plans and so forth. I think it is a very critical time in education right now-get the facts out, get the understanding out. And then, from there, there are a lot of great solutions.