Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Journeying to the Central Arctic, in Boulder

Learners dive in for an immersive Arctic education experience at CU Boulder’s Fiske Planetarium

When 14-year-old Jasmine Ruiz first dipped her hands into a bucket of frigid ice water sitting on a table at CU Boulder’s Fiske Planetarium on Friday, she couldn't believe how cold it was. “It felt like my hands were going to fall off,” she said.

Sixty seconds ticked by slowly for her and several other Fiske visitors, as they imagined what it would be like to remove gloves to adjust delicate research equipment at the North Pole, bracing subzero temperatures and 24-hour darkness. It was all part of an immersive education experience: the Drifting North Polar Planetarium Program, to explore what it was like to participate in an epic science expedition in the Central Arctic.

As 90’s hit “Ice Ice Baby” played across overhead speakers, some in the group giggled and rolled their eyes. After a few seconds, the cold set in. “My hands are numb,” one student cried out. “I want to take them out!” said another. 

After one minute, everyone pulled hands out, dripping, shook them and then attempted to tie fancy knots in string—it’s an activity used in polar safety training around the world, meant to simulate the challenge the MOSAiC researchers faced. Sometimes in the harsh snowy, windy, and cold weather conditions, scientists have to remove their gloves and protective gear to work on small delicate pieces of equipment in temperatures down to -65 degrees F. The cold-handed students learned two lessons: One, it’s hard to work with cold hands, even after only a minute. And two: “It’s about the importance of teamwork,” West High School senior Anay Soto, 18, said.

Jasmine and Anay were part of Denver’s Family Nature Club, a local program that brings learners of all ages on field trips and workshops to learn about nature, supported by Great Outdoors Colorado. The students kicked off their trip with a viewing of the award-winning planetarium film Drifting North - Arctic Pulse, by CIRES/CU Boulder videographer Lianna Nixon. For 30 minutes, the students were surrounded by the sights and sounds of the MOSAiC expedition--from the harsh crunch of subzero snow under boots, to the collaborative shouts of researchers setting up equipment on the ice, to the long blow of a horn as a massive ship pivoted at sea. 

“We designed the field trip to build excitement and interest in STEM careers, open a dialogue about our polar regions and provide opportunities for teachers to incorporate cutting-edge polar science into their classrooms,” said Daniela Pennycook, CIRES Education & Outreach Communication Coordinator & Program Integrator. “With this immersive planetarium show and our hands-on activities, we want to show students and teachers that we are all connected to polar regions and emphasize the importance of the decline in Arctic sea ice.” 

A learner from Denver's Family Nature club poses in Front of a green screen wearing A SUIT that scientists use in the Arctic. Credit: Casey Cass/CU Boulder.

The MOSAiC education program at CIRES teaches students of all ages about the National Science Foundation-funded Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) launched in September 2019. Led by the German Alfred Wegener Institute, an international team of scientists from over twenty countries froze the German Icebreaker R/V Polarstern into the sea ice to observe the Arctic climate for an entire year. Dozens of researchers from CIRES, CU Boulder and NOAA were involved.

Back at Fiske, the learners, some still with clammy hands from the ice bucket challenge, tackled the “Warm-Up Station” activity--they tried on the actual Arctic survival gear used by NOAA scientists during MOSAiC. After muscling into industrially thick boots and strapping into protective coats, the students attempted to show off their favorite dance moves.

“We normally do nature activities, hiking, kayaking, snowshoeing,” said Mary Reyes, 25, a community “connector” with Family Nature Club. “We always enjoy snow in Colorado, but now we learned about snow in the Arctic.” She said it’s a terrific opportunity for someone like her—now out of school—to keep learning.

That resonated with Roberta Molock, 64, who attended the event with friends. They laughed as friends tried on cold weather survival suits and mugged in front of a green screen, pretending to stand on sea ice for a “Polargram Photoshoot.” “I guess it shows me I don’t know everything, even now,” she said. “When I stop learning, that’s…” she shook her head. “I’ll keep learning.”

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.


Daniela Pennycook
CIRES E&O Communication Coordinator & Program Integrator
Katie Weeman
CIRES Communications

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