5 November 2018

A Sense of Place: Recruiting Interest in Science and Discovery Through Storytelling and Outreach

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Jane Wolken

Jane Wolken and Taiga sampling black spruce in the Alaskan boreal forest. Photo Credit: Claire Hudson.

Some memories of a place are so vivid that they trigger the senses: the sight of a brilliant orange sunset viewed from a cool rock outcrop on the shore of a remote lake; the sound of a squirrel chirping from the top of a white spruce tree laden with cones; the unique smell of Labrador tea; the tart taste of Alaskan blueberries; and the abrupt touch of moist cool air at the valley bottom of a steep north-facing slope.

These are a few memories that come to mind when I reflect on my time in the boreal forest I have always called home, be it in Ontario, Alberta, or Alaska. The memories of these experiences fueled my passion to learn more about the natural world around me. These memories motivated me to want to share my awe and excitement of the natural world with others so that they may be inspired to become advocates for the places they hold dear.

Although a strong connection to place may be established in any number of ways, the strongest connections are made through hands-on experiences. I love witnessing my children’s excitement at seeing a conk growing out of a birch tree, or an interesting rock they discovered on a cobble beach. The memories we associate with an experience are unique to each individual. While I may recount a beautiful hike in the woods, my daughters may remember the interesting rock or stick they found, or the ice cream they enjoyed afterwards.

A great find by 3-year-old Bella Wolken. Photo Credit: Jane Wolken

We can recruit interest in science and discovery through storytelling and outreach about the places we hold dear. For me one of the most captivated audiences I have had the pleasure of engaging with was a group of kindergarten students. I was amazed at how interested the students were in a presentation that my husband and I gave in our daughter’s class about our jobs. The children were very interested in the snow samples, wood discs, and equipment we passed around. They had lots of great questions regarding the information that snow and tree ring measurements can tell us about the climate. The students were able to relate to the information we shared by sharing stories of their own experiences with snow and trees.

In this time of rapid climate change scientists are reaching out to politicians to develop climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. However, scientists and educators must not underestimate the impact of their outreach efforts. The collective power of a group of captivated and informed children can positively impact the world. After all, children will help shape the future.

– Jane Wolken is Program Coordinator of the Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center and part of AGU’s Voices for Science program.