A Cryosphere Tour at the American Museum of Natural History

GlacierHub editor Ben Orlove recently led a cryosphere-centered tour of exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) for 20 female students from high schools in the New York City area. The tour was part of the Brown Scholars program at the AMNH. This program, called BridgeUP: STEM, brings female students with interests in science and computers to the museum, where they take classes in programming, databases and data visualization. It offers sessions during the school year and over the summer. Students who complete BridgeUp can apply for internships at the museum. Orlove has recently begun a position as research associate in the division of anthropology at the AMNH, and will be spending time there during his upcoming sabbatical.

Greenland ice core in Hall of Planet Earth (source: AMNH).

As Yvonne De La Peña and Louise Crowley, the director and associate director of BridgeUp, explained to Orlove, the program began in 2014 with a $7.5 million grant from the Helen Gurley Brown Trust to the AMNH. In addition to the Brown Scholars program, the grant supports five women each year as Helen Fellows; they are advanced students from university science, computer science and entrepreneurship programs who work closely with BridgeUP: STEM. The Helen Fellows work with AMNH educators in a middle school after-school program for girls and boys in grades six through eight, drawing students from underserved New York schools and giving them exposure to STEM fields.

Louise Crowley explained the Brown Scholars program to GlacierHub. She said, “The Brown Scholars program differs from the multitude of programs that aim to teach computer programming, as our students have the opportunity to engage with museum research scientists, utilize current datasets and work on algorithms to answer some of the scientific questions being studied in this building. Moreover, behind-the-scenes tours of museum collections and scientist-led tours of exhibits engage these students enormously.”

This video presents the Brown Scholars program:

Brown scholars at the Greenland ice core in Hall of Planet Earth (source: Yvonne de la Peña).

Orlove’s tour on 17 July was designed to show students the range of research across the divisions of the museum and to present climate to them. It began in the Hall of Planet Earth, where the students examined an ice core from Greenland. Along with Orlove and the students, De La Peña, Senior Director Ruth Cohen , and two Helen Fellows, Lillie Schachter and Abby Mayer, took part in the tour.

They broke into four groups, each of which examined a different section of the core. The groups measured the thickest and thinnest annual year in their section and reported back, allowing the students to discuss climate variability and data records. Orlove spoke briefly about melting in the Greenland Ice Sheet, linking it to sea-level rise.

Bighorn sheep diorama in Hall of North American Mammals (source: AMNH).

The tour continued to the Hall of North American Mammals. At the east end, the students broke into four groups again, each looking at a different diorama— bighorn sheep, dall sheep, mountain goats and musk oxen— in which glaciers are displayed. They noted that the dioramas all depicted summer and fall conditions, when there was still snow to replenish the glaciers. Orlove indicated that in the decades the landscapes were recorded to produce these dioramas, the glaciers have retreated significantly.

Brown scholars at the Alaska Brown Bear diorama (source: Yvonne De La Peña).

At the west end of the Hall of North American Mammals, the tour focused on the diorama of the Alaska brown bear, set at Canoe Bay on the Alaska Peninsula. The students noted different components of this diorama: the high glaciated peaks in the background, the river that runs down from the peaks, a salmon caught by one of the two bears, and the bears themselves, one on all fours approaching the salmon, the other, further back, reared up on its hind legs. They put these elements together: meltwater from glaciers in the summer and fall provides flow to keep the river full and to support the salmon migration.

Brown scholars in the Stout Hall of Asian Peoples (source: Yvonne De La Peña).

The tour continued to the Stout Hall of Asian Peoples, where the Siberian Peoples exhibits document a great reliance on animals. The students broke into different groups and identified the particular animals— reindeer, cattle, or horses, depending on the culture. They looked for cryosphere-related objects and found a few, most notably a sled with runners for travelling over snow.

Orlove explained that permafrost thawing in Siberia was similar to ice sheet melting in Greenland and glacier retreat in North America. It is leading to the growth of lakes and swamps, reducing the pasture for the reindeer, horses and cattle. And it is making the area even buggier, he told them, pointing to a large silver-handled whisk made of horsehair which could be used to chase flies or mosquitoes.

Yakut shaman exhibit in Stout Hall of Asian Peoples (source: AMNH).

The final stop on the tour was an exhibit of a Yakut healing ceremony led by a shaman. The students looked at the replica of a Yakut hut, with a woman lying ill on a bed. The shaman sat on a stool next to her; his assistant and a relative of the woman, dressed like the shaman in skin and fur garments, were gathered around. Orlove told the students that these kinds of healing ceremonies continue in Siberia to the present.

The group moved on to the BridgeUp study area, where the program provided pizza for lunch. The students discussed the reasons for the sequence of the tour: first ice, then animals, then people. The students talked at greatest length about the North American dioramas.

Brown Scholars in discussion with Helen Fellows and Ben Orlove after the cryosphere tour (source: Yvonne De La Peña).

One of the Helen Fellows, Lillie Schachter, began a discussion of climate change, prompted by the pizza lunch, and the students joined in. Sea-level rise could disrupt the ports through which food could be shipped, and weather extremes might impact on dairy cattle. The students had some awareness that cows might contribute to climate change themselves. The other Helen Fellow, Abby Meyer, opened the discussion to the data that the students were studying. She encouraged them to suggest variables that could link climate change and food. That led to a consideration of temperature, water and food prices.

In the time after that discussion, Orlove conferred with Schachter and Meyer for ways to improve the tour, which may be offered again. In the weeks after the tour, some ideas emerged. The similarities between the North American mammals and the animals of Siberia could be underscored, since they are all large herbivores. And the Alaska Brown Bear exhibit is set at a place called Canoe Bay; that, too, suggests a link between indigenous cultures and cryosphere sites. The data questions that Meyer raised are another promising lead. And perhaps there could be a data visualization project for the students.

Yvonne De La Peña told GlacierHub, “The tour and the discussion that followed were excellent opportunities for our students to better understand the impact of climate change. It was also a great way to take advantage of the museum’s resources to support students’ learning.” As she suggests, the AMNH, with its historic collections, continues to find ways to address the concerns of the present and future, as it reaches out to groups that have been underrepresented in science.

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