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"The Arctic Touch": In Greenland students literally get their hands on the Arctic

At Aarhus University's arctic semester in Greenland, the programme coordinators are met with increased interest from students who want to learn more about the practice they read about in their textbooks. However, a semester on the sea ice makes significantly different demands than life behind the yellow walls at AU.

For many students, it is the opportunity to collect data on Arctic soil that lures them all the way to Greenland. Photo: Dorte Søgaard.
Dorte Søgaard is the programme coordinator at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and the Arctic Research Centre (ARC) at AU. She also teaches in sea ice ecology. Privatfoto

In 2014, Aarhus University and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk applied for funding to establish a semester in Arctic biology in Greenland with a focus on climate change. The following year, in 2015, they opened the doors to the first students who wanted to travel the long way from Denmark to learn more about climate change and Arctic nature and culture in the company of local students from Greenland.

Dorte Søgaard is the programme coordinator at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and the Arctic Research Centre (ARC) at AU. She also teaches students in a course on sea ice ecology. She has been involved from the very beginning and a lot has happened since 2015:

"We started up almost like a small grass-roots movement. We did not have laboratory facilities or any actual campus. The first semester had five students. So, it was very small. However, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources was granted some money and in 2017 they opened a brand-new 1500 square metre educational facility with nice laboratory facilities and lecture theatres. This year, there are 63 students in the autumn semester and all our courses are full," Dorte Søgaard says.

Science with a societal perspective

The Arctic semester is intended for students with a background in natural sciences. It is possible to complete either a whole semester in Greenland or just one or more individual courses. However, Dorte Søgaard stresses that despite the scientific focus there has also been a great desire to incorporate a societal perspective:

“Many of the students may have a biased perception of Greenland and Greenlandic society. But they get a completely different experience when they move there. There is a society in Nuuk. People depend on the natural resources to make their lives work. Greenland is a part of us and a part of Denmark. Sometimes, we forget that. So, I like the idea that we are educating the students in having an appreciation of Greenland.”

If the students want to try their hand at life in Greenland but do not have a background in the natural sciences, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources also offers 12 days of interdisciplinary summer courses where all educational backgrounds are welcome as long as the students have a PhD. For example, a course on plastic pollution in the marine is offered, which combines approaches from natural sciences and social sciences.

See how the Arctic lies

According to Dorte Søgaard, there is a high demand from students for the practice-based approach to teaching and learning that they use in the courses in Nuuk.

"The whole idea of going to Greenland as a student is that you have to experience nature and see how the Arctic lies. Many of the teachers are from Denmark but travel to Greenland to teach. Consequently, we were also under a lot of pressure during corona because it changed the whole premise. Online teaching did not work for us,” she concludes.

However, the online format is not unnecessary for the teaching but is used for preparation before the students arrive in Greenland. They participate in online lectures and must complete an online course on climate change to be prepared before the start of the semester. After that, the idea is that there should be as few lectures as possible:

"When they arrive, they first and foremost must complete a safety course and a first aid course with a focus on arctic temperatures and hypothermia. For example, they must learn how to save themselves if they fall into a hole in the ice. After that, they are ready for fieldwork. On the course about sea ice, we sail with an icebreaker to do a lot of measurements of the water, which are then processed in our laboratories afterwards. So, there is a lot of hands-on work, and the aim is to do as few lectures as possible," Dorte Søgaard explains.

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The students stick around

Even though a semester in Greenland only lasts for up to six months, many of the students stay much longer. They do this because it is possible to write a master’s thesis and PhD dissertation in collaboration with some of the teachers on the courses as several of them also act as supervisors. This is an option that several of the students utilise.

Dorte Søgaard explains that the students first and foremost are enthralled by the Greenlandic nature and the option to do their data collection on Arctic soil. However, she also believes that the strong bond that develops between the teachers and students plays an important role in ensuring that the students feel safe and have the courage to continue their Arctic adventure:

"We create a different kind of relationship with the students than what is expected. We get close to them because, since they have moved to a brand-new country with a different culture, they come to us with other kinds of issues than just academic ones. So, we get to know them in a completely different way," she says.

At AU Educate, you can also read about how meaningful relations between students and teachers can help to retain the students, especially in connection with their first academic year.

Read more about AU’s Greenland offers

On the website of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, you can read more about the various research programmes and see which courses are offered. You can also read more about ARC's visions and projects on their website.