Behind the Scenes of Expedition Arctic – an interview with Jessica Freeborn

Expedition Arctic card cropped

Students on Ice (SOI) and the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) recently launched an exciting new website: Expedition Arctic! Produced in partnership with the Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC) and Habitat Seven, Expedition Arctic  is an educational website that follows SOI’s Geoff Green, scientists from the CMN and two students as they journey through Canada’s eastern Arctic and western Greenland.

Jessica Freeborn, Manager of Projects and Partnerships for SOI was instrumental in the development of Expedition Arctic and shares her thoughts and motivation in building this virtual expedition…

Jessica Freeborn profile

Q: Where did the concept for Expedition Arctic originate? 

Even in this day and age, something that we noticed is that considering that the Arctic makes up a large chunk of Canada, there is little or no curriculum in schools that teach youth about the Arctic.  We wanted to create a resource that is accessible for youth and teachers that is educational, interactive, visually exciting and scientifically accurate.  Something teachers could use, and youth could engage with to learn about the vibrant geography, science and culture of the Arctic, and  the people that live, work and travel in the Arctic region.

Q: Tell me a bit about the partnership between SOI and the CMN

(c) Students on Ice / Martin Lipman

(c) Students on Ice / Martin Lipman

The Canadian Museum of Nature and Students on Ice have long been partners, collaborating on a number of educational outreach initiatives with regards to the Arctic. As two organizations focused on educating and inspiring youth to connect with nature, our partnership is a natural fit. SOI’s office is even housed within the CMN’s research and collection facility at the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus, which makes working together even better.

For nearly 15 years, SOI has taken youth from around the world on life-changing educational expeditions to the Polar Regions. We are fortunate that scientists from the CMN, including botanists, zoologists and palaeontologists have joined our Arctic expeditions each year and provide a wealth of knowledge to youth (and adults!) about the plants and wildlife in the Arctic. We all benefit from their Arctic expertise – the museum has a century long tradition of field-based Arctic research which continues to this day.

 Q: How did you become involved in Expedition Arctic? 

With a background in anthropology and museum studies, I had been working for the CMN as a technical writer and Coordinator for the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada. While in this position I learned about a job opportunity to lead this exciting new initiative for SOI.  My role was to oversee the entire project and to look after the logistical and content side of things.  Everything from writing content, choosing photos and videos to use, seeking out educators to create lesson plans based on current Canadian educational curriculum, to working with our multimedia and development team to creating a visually exciting website.

Q: How closely does Expedition Arctic resemble the experience students and educators have on an SOI Arctic expedition?


Almost all videos and photos, come from SOI expeditions and give accurate and up close examples of what the team and students really experience on their travels.  We had a film crew travel on the 2012 expedition (the site follows the 2012 expedition) and they captured a lot of what happens on expeditions – the animal sightings, the research that goes on, the people we meet.

Q: How was the team for Expedition Arctic selected? 

Geoff Green   Paul Hamilton

Geoff Green is the Founder of SOI and the Expedition Leader so he was a natural fit to interactively lead on this journey. The two students, Marine and Dang-Dang were also students who travelled with us on the 2012 journey and we wanted to provide a perspective of what the youth experienced, through their eyes.  The CMN scientists have long worked in the Arctic and are experts in certain fields.  Kieran in Palaeobiology, Jennifer in botany, Paul in marine life and David in Arctic biology. Each were a natural fit to join us and to be featured on the site.

 Q: What Challenges did you experience developing Expedition Arctic?

With any project you have to ask yourself basic questions. How can we ensure the proper representation of Arctic people and wildlife? How can we make sure all scientific and educational content is accurate?  How do we create a site that is educational and exciting?  You do so with the help of your team.  Having the scientists and educators write and provide info on their expertise and having a great development team (Habitat Seven) create an interactive and visually appealing site is what makes a great site.

With any team there will always be challenges.

For the scientists it might be how to engage youth in what they are talking about or it might just be trying to actually locate what they are talking about in the Arctic setting. As Dr. David Gray with the Canadian Museum of Nature puts it, you can try to teach youth about musk-ox but on the land it’s pretty hard to see one. Most of the time you just see musk-rocks, big boulders that resemble musk-ox that can be a trick of the eye.

For the Expedition Leader it could be weather as seen on SOI’s 2012 Arctic Expedition. The expedition couldn’t reach its vessel and spent extra days in Iqaluit due to the ice situation – the ice was thicker at that time in the season than most locals had seen in more than 50 years.

For the students it’s learning new facts, being away from home for the first time, meeting people from around the world and learning about themselves in the process.

For the crew it could be the ever-changing Arctic landscape and having to deal with equipment in a fast-moving environment. One minute you’re filming on a Zodiac and it’s sunny and the next minute you’re in rough waters trying to get a shot before having to get back to the boat.

And finally, for the Project Manager it’s trying to take this whole story and put it into a coherent and interesting website, running into logistical issues or just plain old deadlines. From these challenges came an exciting vibrant story.

Q: What do you like most about the site?

polar_bears  landscape.2  dwarf_fireweed cropped

Each part of the site is very special and provides such an interesting look at the Arctic region.  I have to say that it is quite visually stunning and all of the photos and videos on the site provide a story in themselves. The entire site is meant to be a visual journey where, along with the text, each photo and video are educational and eye-opening and I think we captured that here.

One of the best parts of the site is that it makes Arctic science and research fascinating!  For someone who wasn’t in the science stream as a kid, I learned so much from the site about things I never thought I would ever know about!  But also things that are important to know about such as climate change and how it affects the animals and plants that live there and also how it affects people and the planet as a whole.  Each of the natural collections featured on the site tells a story that is relevant to today.  From the tiniest organisms that provide the basis for the food chain (people are included on this food chain!) to the prehistoric animals that tell a story of the Earth millions of years ago, it’s all important in providing the building blocks to explaining the current and future trends of the people, planet and environment.

 Q: Tell me about the Arctic IQ and contest.

The quiz is pretty cool, I have to say.  It’s meant for 14 to 18 year old Canadian youth who have never before travelled with Students on Ice.  Students have the opportunity to test their Arctic knowledge and hopefully learn some interesting new facts along the way! Each time a question is answered, the youth’s name is entered into a draw to win a spot on the Students on Ice 2014 Arctic Expedition!


This is a life-changing opportunity to connect with youth from around the world in one of the most incredible, awe-inspiring places on earth. SOI alumni leave our expeditions forever changed. With a deeper connection to nature and the inspiration to be more socially, environmentally and globally aware young leaders, SOI alumni are making a difference across multiple disciplines in their communities and beyond.

But the best part of Expedition Arctic is you don’t have to wait for the opportunity to travel to the Arctic, this virtual expedition site brings the incredible journey of discovery to YOU!


Students on Ice is proudly supported by bv02.

This website was made possible by a generous contribution from the Leacross Foundation.