NSF CAREER Award to fund unique research project

Explaining the dynamics of an ice age landscape to a classroom of middle-schoolers can be a daunting challenge for teachers. Researchers in the lab examine evidence such as pollen and other tiny fossils, and particulate matter contained in sediment core samples to “see” what the ancient landscape once was. But how can this data be translated visually for others?

With the help of virtual reality technology, University of Maine paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill aims to use the valuable field data collected by her research team for the creation of a unique and powerful tool for educators and their students to become ice age forensic scientists in their school classrooms.

Gill, an assistant professor of paleoecology and plant ecology, has been awarded a nearly $800,000, five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award to fund her research project, Environmental Change and Extinction on the Mammoth Steppe.

Gill and her team of student researchers will travel to various locations in Russia and Alaska to obtain sediment core samples to examine back in the lab. Gill is enthusiastic about this field work experience and what they hope to find.

“We’ll be taking sediment cores from Wrangel Island, which is the last known location of woolly mammoths on Earth (until just 3,600 years ago; mammoths had died out on the mainland before 10,000 years ago),” explained Gill. “We’re especially interested in how the environment was changing when the ice age megafauna went extinct — did climate play a role? Or did the extinction cause surviving ecosystems to be more sensitive to climate change?”

The project will provide multiple opportunities for students, local teachers and researchers to collaborate in the field and the lab. The results will benefit the education, mentoring and training of students as they incorporate data and technology research into a student-designed ice age virtual reality game.

In particular, the project will allow students in rural communities an opportunity for cutting-edge science experiences in the classroom.

Gill believes students will be excited to use virtual reality to visualize and learn about ice age landscapes. “I want to make the invisible world, visible,” she says. “They will see mammoths walking across the landscape, knocking down trees, pooping, eating plants and other things they would have done, which will inspire them to become scientists and ask questions about what they are seeing.”

Lessons about the past can lead to solving the problems of the present. Gill hopes that incorporating science-driven research combined with virtual reality technology will motivate future generations of researchers to study their environment.

“Herbivores remain some of the most threatened animals in our modern ecosystems, so understanding the ‘Serengeti of the ice age’ can help in the management of Earth’s largest animals today, and may provide insights into the role native grazers play in a warming Arctic,” says Gill.

Contact: Christel Peters, 207.581.3571