Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Our Polar Past: Using the History of Polar Exploration in the Science Classroom

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Our Polar Past: Using the History of Polar Exploration in the Science Classroom

Article excerpt


After spending the winter in frigid Antarctica, expedition leader Douglas Mawson and explorers Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz set off with dog teams to map the continent's far eastern coastline. Mawson (1915) recalled that fateful day of December 14, 1912:

   When I next looked back, it was in response to the anxious
   gaze of Mertz who had turned round and halted in his
   tracks. Behind me, nothing met the eye but my own sledge
   tracks running back in the distance. Where were Ninnis
   and his sledge?

The terrain had been difficult, with alternating soft, boggy snow; waves and ridges of ice; and the ever-present, snow-covered crevasses. Mertz, on skis, surveyed the trail in advance of the party's sledges. After him, Mawson was the second man to make it across a snow-bridged crevasse. Ninnis, however, was not as fortunate:

I hastened back along the trail thinking that a rise in the ground obscured the view. There was no such good fortune, however, for I came to a gaping hole in the surface about 11 feet [3 m] wide. The lid of a crevasse had broken in; two sledge tracks led up to it on the far side, but only one continued on the other side (Mawson 1915).

Three men accompanied by two sledges, two dog teams, tents, supplies, and food had ventured into the Antarctic wasteland for scientific study. Not only was Ninnis now lost, but the dogs, supplies, and food they had carefully calculated to get them home safely was swallowed by a huge chasm in the ice:

Frantically waving to Mertz to bring up my sledge, upon which there was some alpine rope, I leaned over and shouted into the dark depths below. No sound came back but the moaning of a dog, caught on a shelf just visible 150 feet [45 m] below. The poor creature appeared to have broken its back, for it was attempting to sit up with the front part of its body while the hinder portion lay limp. Another dog lay motionless by its side. Closeby was what appeared in the gloom to be the remains of the tent and a canvas tank containing food for three men for a fortnight (Mawson 1915).


Each time we introduce glacial processes and polar study in our science courses, we incorporate vignettes of polar exploration history--such as this one--to make the history of science come alive. Invariably, our students are riveted by the account of Douglas Mawson, and his solitary march toward survival. Shortly after the tragic loss of Ninnis, Mertz died from vitamin A poisoning, caused by consuming sled dogs' livers after the party's food and supplies were lost. His death is the first in history attributed to vitamin A poisoning.



The study of polar exploration is fascinating and offers students insights into the history, culture, and politics that affect the developing sciences at the farthest ends of Earth. We think there is value in incorporating polar exploration accounts within modern science classrooms, so we conducted research to test our hypothesis and identify the best classroom textbook sources and potential strategies for classroom use. This article presents our research and provides suggestions for incorporating polar exploration history into the science classroom.

The International Polar Year

The International Polar Year (IPY) (2007-2009), organized by the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization, encourages the public's awareness of polar research through a wide range of biological, physical, and social research topics (see "On the web"). March 2009 marked the end of our most recent IPY--the fourth in history. Previous IPYs occurred in 1882-1883, 1932-1933, and 1957-1958. The latest IPY offered teachers a range of resources for polar research and the history of polar science (see "On the web").

In the classroom

Many have argued for the importance of incorporating the history of science into the classroom (Conant 1947; Duschl 1985). …

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