Icy Cooperative Learning - Co-op Week


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of tpsdave.

UArctic, an expansive, decentralized organization focused on the Arctic, connects long-distance research efforts in and throughout the Circumpolar North. An atypical, interconnected university, UArctic functions as a network of various colleges, universities, and other centers that focus on particular research topics.

There are lots of different Arctic topics to tackle. For instance, regarding the populations who reside there, how can they go about keeping food at such freezing locations?

UArctic’s Northern Food Security investigates sustenance subjects. The program is made up of Canadian, Scandinavian, and Alaskan universities that share their knowledge with other agriculture and governance centers.

For travelers’ interests in the Arctic, there’s a separate educational network called Northern Tourism, which stretches from Quebec to British Columbia, Finland to Iceland–not to mention an association of colleges across the Highlands and islands of Scotland.

Around since 2001, UArctic was started by the Arctic Council. The latter Arctic program is an intergovernmental forum that was founded in 1996 by Canada, Denmark (Greenland and Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States (Alaska). Following the thawing of the Arctic’s East-West military tensions of the Cold War, the forum was created to provide a means for cooperation and coordination between the member countries with regard for indigenous peoples living in the Arctic region.

Education and research centers from the proper Arctic states can list as full members, a qualification which makes room for quite a diverse array of institutions: Kamchatka State University of Education, Reykjavik University, Vancouver Island University, Dartmouth College, and dozens more. Participating institutions from non-Arctic states, like Japan, China, or the UK, are considered associate members.

So how does UArctic coalesce as a unit, between such distant locales all situated in famously inhospitable climates?

Brian Rogers, Chancellor at University of Alaska Fairbanks, explains to BTR that UArctic’s members are organized through Thematic Networks, or focused research themes.

Examples of UArctic Thematic Networks include Permafrost, Law, Geology, Geopolitics and Security, or Energy in New Time. Each of these Thematic Networks works through its own system of people and places. For instance, the Indigenous Arts and Crafts Thematic Network is led by Sami University College in Norway, joined by Sami Education Institute, the University of Lapland over in Finland, plus the Siberian Arctic State Institute of Arts and Culture.

One of the newest UArctic Thematic Networks, Rogers explains, is the Natural Hazards Grouping. The University of Alaska Fairbanks leads the Network that’s connected to others in Iceland, Norway, and Russia. Faculty from four separate institutes work together to formulate a curriculum that can provide educational opportunities for their countries while organizing new geologic research.

“We have a field school this summer that will bring primarily Russians–but also students from other institutions–to Alaska, to look at issues of volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis,” Rogers says. “The Norwegians are interested in mudslides and ice slides, avalanches as well.”

A topographical map of the Arctic. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The greater UArctic organization facilitates faculty-to-faculty contact between people in Thematic Networks. Communicating between such diverse multinational systems requires specified time-zone coordination. To participate in conference call between the board of UArctic governors, Rogers signs into Skype at 7 a.m. in Alaska–which is 8 a.m. in the Pacific US, 12:30 p.m. for the Newfoundland member, 6 p.m. for the people in Norway, 7 p.m. for the Finnish party, and finally, 9 p.m. in Moscow.

Conducting meetings in person is necessary, but naturally, even more complicated. As northerly locations are often frigid and difficult to access, conditions make travel between member institutions long and expensive. Rogers mentions an upcoming meeting in Sweden that he is planning to attend, where he’ll have to fly southward, transfer in Seattle, and then Paris, to get up north again to Stockholm. During the summer, opportunities exist to travel along higher latitudes and switch planes from Anchorage in Iceland, but during other times of the year, such flights don’t operate.

Consequently, sharing knowledge is beneficial when complicated trips, and their costs, can be reduced.

The actual research endeavors aren’t easy–or cheap–either. Rogers describes a research project during his first month as Chancellor where he secured an icebreaker from a Russian shipping company for the cost of $40,000 per day.

Ultimately, Arctic-related knowledge gained in Alaska is not just useful at the local level, but to all in the Arctic region. Because these places experience common environmental conditions, and face similar issues, researchers can all benefit from pooling, then building on, each other’s findings.

Plus, relevant participation is not just limited to students, educators, researchers, or administrators.

“We often invite diplomats, business people, indigenous groups, and others to get together and talk over issues,” says Rogers.

The fundamental concept of getting people to cooperate is to get them together and speak, Rogers reasons. He believes that UArctic succeeds at providing such an outlet, as most other Arctic organizations based on diplomacy or security will “essentially have a single issue or focus on a formal rule-making regulatory body.”

On the other hand, universities and groups of universities provide “an opportunity for people throughout the Arctic to discuss Arctic issues in a neutral forum.” When people aren’t sponsored by a single government–or assigned to talk solely about a singular subject like marine safety–they can effectively compile a comprehensive cross-section of Arctic issues to navigate.