The Hidden World of Permafrost
This project by teams at the University of Alaska and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry will engage the public in the topic of the nature and prevalence of permafrost, its scale on the earth and the important role it plays in the global climate. It builds on 50 years of informal education and outreach at the Alaskan Permafrost Tunnel near Fairbanks, AK, which, since the 1960s, has been the Nation's only underground facility for research related to permafrost and climate. The project has four components: (1) a nationally distributed 2,000 square-foot traveling exhibition; (2) exhibit and program enhancements to the learning opportunities at the tunnel; (3) programs, table-top exhibits and oral history research in 27 Native Alaskan villages; and (4) an education research study. Each of these components will be evaluated over the course of the work. By upgrading the displays at the tunnel, and by taking traveling programs to the villages, the work will extend the tunnel experience across Alaska. In the villages the team will collect stories about climate change, along with samples of real ancient ice and permafrost. These stories and materials will be used in the traveling exhibit which is expected to be at three museums per year for eight years. The research component of the initiative will build on the observation to date that the tunnel has provided thousands of visitors with an underground immersive environment where they learn about the science research being conducted and engage with climate-sensitive materials (e.g., permafrost, wedge ice, frozen silt, Pleistocene bones) using all of their senses. It has been conjectured that their learning experiences are enhanced by interacting with real vs. replicated objects. As museums often contain exhibits that are more likely to contain replicated and/or virtual objects and environments, understanding the impact that these different categories of objects have on learning is important. Using both types of materials, the project will investigate differences in their efficacy in informal science learning institutions related to climate change. Real objects are postulated to have the following attributes that stimulate fuller engagement; they are (1) information-rich by virtue of such features as their texture, odor, and dimensionality; (2) at real-life scale; (3) authentic, i.e., original objects; and (4) often unique, i.e., have inherent value. Research questions will explore the potential impacts on learning of these and related features. Methods employed will be observation, video, and interviews of the public with a particular focus on visitor talk with respect to explanations and elaborations about permafrost, tipping points, climate change, and geological time.