Arctic Research Collaboration

Since 2010, SWVGS students have joined with an Arctic research team from Radford University and journeyed over 3,500 miles to investigate polar sea ice. Every two years, SWVGS students and a SWVGS instructor spend a week in Barrow, Alaska conducting experiments to characterize sea ice. The work is part of an ongoing study at Radford University, led by Dr. Rhett Herman, where the goal is to monitor ice caps and relate findings to climate change.

Gaven Burnett, Ashley Taylor, and Biyuan Zhao were the first SWVGS students to participate in the arctic collaboration. In March 2010, these Governor's school students clearly showed their dedication to the project as they endured long hours working in temperatures that commonly reached 40 below zero. Burnett, Taylor, and Zhao were responsible for dragging high-tech equipment across the ice to measure its thickness. The students used an OhmMapper to transmit signals through the ice that were then recorded to measure the resistivity. Collected data were analyzed nightly to create an image of the ice which showed varying thickness and rugged underwater surface. Preliminary data were used to determine the next day's research objectives. The Governor's school students also employed thermochrons, button-sized digital thermometers that record the temperature of the environment in which they are placed. Burnett, Taylor, and Zhao were responsible for designing the experimental method using the thermochrons to measure the surface temperature of the sea ice. While in Barrow, the Governor's school students presented their initial findings, involving an analysis of the correlation between surface temperature of ice and ice thickness, at the BASC facility to a group of local Barrow citizens and other visiting scientists.

Megan Lacy, Andrew Vaccaro, and Madonna Yoder participated in the second SWVGS-RU arctic research trip. The February/March 2012 research trip to Barrow, Alaska was a challenging trip. The research group experiened extremely cold temperatures with wind chills approaching (-)60 degrees F. This led to a number of equipment malfunctions and even some equipment breakages. Nevertheless, the group perservered and deployed a new infrared sensor designed by Dan Blake and SWVGS students to determine the temperature of the ice surface to +/-0.1 degrees C. Lacy, Vaccaro, and Yoder also presented their initial findings at the BASC facility. The data from this instrument had a strong visual correlation with the data obtained by the OhmMapper electrical resistivity array.

Participation in the arctic research trip is an opportunity of a lifetime. Students are exposed to real-life research conditions and are required to solve problems as they arise. For example, students are often required to spend the first couple of days of the trip constructing a system that will effectively insulate their equipment so that they can protect the batteries and other components from freezing and becoming unusable in the arctic conditions. Taylor noted that she learned patience, teamwork, and how to overcome obstacles. She gained an appreciation for the scientific process and for the striking beauty of the polar region. Burnett and Zhao each valued the change of pace from a classroom environment and liked learning about the lifestyles of natives of the Alaskan community and the impact that global warming has on their lives.

After returning from Alaska, students are tasked with analyzing their results, finding meaning, and constructing questions that will form the basis of future arctic research trips. Burnett, Taylor, and Zhao presented their work during the summer of 2010 at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Zhao presented a poster at the American Geophysical Union in December 2010, and Vaccaro presented in December 2012. All students presented work at the RU Undergraduate Forum. In supporting such research adventures, SWVGS and RU hope to inspire a new generation of enthusiastic, resourceful, dedicated scientists.

The third trip took place in March 2014. Austin Owen from Pulaski County High School and Ashley Jordan from Galax High School participated as part of the research team. They used a piece of research equipment designed and constructed by Mr. Dan Blake to collect surface temperature measurements. 

The fourth trip was successful in March 2016. Mrs. Krista Stith, Life Science teacher at SWVGS, traveled with Nolan McGrady from Marion Senior High School, Jake Clary from Pulaski County High School, and Sam Mogen from Radford High School. 

Mr. Greg Riffe, Mathematics and Statistics Instructor at SWVGS, accompanied students on the fifth and sixth trips in March 2018 and March 2020. André Shannon and Rachel Myers, from Floyd County High School and Marion Senior High School, respectively, traveled with the 2018 research team. Katelyn Collett from Marion Senior High School and Rosie Tomiak from George Wythe High School were fortunate to complete their arctic research trip in 2020 just before travel started to be limited due to the coronavirus pandemic. Katelyn was able to base her 2020-2021 SWVGS research project on ice samples she collected; she participated in multiple research competitions to share her work. Julian Miller from Pulaski County High School participated in the seventh artic research collaboration.

The eighth SWVGS-RU research trip to Alaska was successfully completed in March 2024. Mr. Greg Riffe accompanied Em Paul from Blacksburg High School and Weston Smith from Giles High School. Em Paul designed a closed chamber system to measure carbon dioxide efflux from far north environments. Weston Smith investigated the influence of UV-A and infrared exposure on the reproductive capabilities of cyanobacteria.

The next research trip is planned for March 2026. Interested students must demonstrate consistent interest and dedication, be successful in current academic work such that missing a week of school for the trip is not detrimental, write an essay describing why they are interested in the research trip, learn how to properly use the research equipment, assist in pre-trip design and production of research devices, and participate in interviews with members of the selection committee.

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