Science of the Sommers Sisters

IMG_2003“Which one of us do you think is older?” I asked the sixty or so fifth graders seated on the floor of their school library, in an elementary just outside Denver, CO. “Raise your hand if you think she is older.”

About half the kids raised their hands. We probably both looked like generic grown-ups to them.

“Raise your hand if you think I’m older.”

About half the kids raised their hands again, including maybe some of the same kids, just covering all their bases.

“I’m two years older,” I confessed.

“But I’m taller,” added Aleah, my younger sister.

We were doing a joint presentation to the fifth graders on glaciers. Aleah is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder in Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering, where she has been funded by NASA to use numerical modeling to understand how liquid water affects the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet. However, she has also used her background in engineering to find new ways to test the water storage capacity of upper layers in glaciers, which are partially compacted snow called firn. (You can see some of her published work here and a short video on her research here.)

Last year, at about this time, she traversed Greenland by snowmobile, measuring the firn with a prototype of a device she and her husband (also an engineer) had worked out. You can see some photos and stories about that traverse on her blog.

That was shortly after I had moved to Boulder to start studying microbes in glacial mud puddles called cryoconite holes. I recently returned from my first season studying microbes on Antarctic glaciers, which you can learn more about on our project blog.

Anyway, now that we both study glaciers after a fashion, when Aleah saw an email request from a fifth grade teacher seeking real live glacier scientists to talk to her class about glacier research, she forwarded it on to me, saying:

Hey – would you be interested in doing this together, if they’re still looking for someone to come talk about glaciers/ice sheets?  We have great photos and stories from Greenland and Antarctica…  It could be fun.  And I never interact with 5th graders!

I of course have often interacted with fifth graders over the past several years of helping to launch Sky School, an outdoor science program at the University of Arizona. In my new position, I’m glad I have time to work on my research but I do miss teaching a teeny, tiny bit! A one hour presentation – with my sister – sounded like fun.

The silly putty glacier flowed down the slope and fanned out at the bottom, much like the glaciers I work on in Antarctica.

I learned some things about glaciers myself. For example, in order to be considered a glacier, the ice must be present year-round, and it must be flowing. That’s right, glaciers flow like a very, very slow liquid. This required a silly putty demonstration! (Fun fact: At least a few weeks ago, everyone in the Boulder-Denver area in the fifth-grade range was apparently making silly putty at home, and the hardware stores around town were having trouble keeping Elmer’s glue in stock.)

Besides giving some basic glacier facts, and talking about how they shape the surface of the earth (the curriculum standard we were hitting) and why glaciers matter to people, we showed pictures of each our field work on glaciers and answered questions.

One of the best parts of the presentation came later, when the teacher emailed us to say that one of the girls in her class told her she wants to study glaciers when she grows up! (Of course, I promptly sent her a link to this great program for high school girls… a few years early for this student to apply, but still.)

I had a blast getting to talk science and hang out with my sis for an afternoon. If you have classes in the Denver area (or within driving distance) and want your students to hear about life on The Ice, let me know – I’d be up for an encore. I might be able to convince my sister to do it again, too 🙂

Also, since I’m posting this on her birthday, happy birthday Aleah!