September 8, 2015

A Tradition of Digital Storytelling with Students on Ice

When you bring youth to the Arctic and Antarctic for educational expeditions, there are bound to be a few stories to tell. There is the story of legendary explorer, Dr. Fred Roots, at 90 years old sliding down an Antarctic ice sheet whooping it up with a group of teenagers. Another story is about students performing a flash mob to “Ice Ice Baby” in downtown Iqaluit, Nunavut, before being escorted by the Coast Guard through an ice-choked harbor. This summer, 16 zodiac boats carrying 200 participants huddled together in Jakobshavn Icefjord, Greenland while having a sing-along with Sarah Harmer to the sound of a thousand swaying icebergs.

There are countless other stories like those that capture the connections our students make with the natural world, the educators who lead their path of discovery, and with one another.

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Since Students on Ice began in 2000, we have shared these stories with people back home by sending blog posts, photos, and videos to our home base via satellite. This practice has been a core part of our culture of storytelling for 15 years. Along the way, we have learned about how to tell good stories and how to use those stories to share the Students on Ice experience with the world and further our mandate.

Technology Can’t Tell a Good Story for You, but It Can Help

There have been a lot of changes to our technology use since 2000. Our shipboard hardware has improved. Whereas previously we sent grainy video clips of penguins sized less than 100 kilobytes, today each two-week expedition sends home an update video every second day to share highlights with those at home.

Online, our website has been overhauled to become more visually appealing to draw people in to the unique expedition micro-sites that highlight blog posts, photos, and videos from each trip to the Polar Regions. Social media supports the in-depth stories and relationships that emerge from our adventures in the Arctic and Antarctica.

The expedition media team has gone from a few education staff members with cameras to dedicated photography personnel—a team of media professionals including photographers and videographers led by a production coordinator. Our partnerships with the likes of Parks Canada and The Weather Network have put GoPro cameras in the hands (and on the heads) of students to share their POV. Our move into shooting with 4k video is also promising for the evolution of our visual storytelling. The inclusion of an aerial drone this summer created opportunities to glimpse ice caps and Greenlandic towns from a whole new perspective.

Create Meaningful Experiences and the Stories Write Themselves

The thrust of Students on Ice storytelling has always been sharing experiences directly from the youth and staff participants on-board the ship. Capturing the excitement in this “user-generated content” is key to conveying the message at the heart of Students on Ice. We want to promote our key messages to inspire change and action.

We have limited capacity to share this transformational experience with a small number of people each year. It is our hope that, using our unique media strategy, we will have each expeditioner become a storyteller and share their messages about climate change, social action, Arctic peoples, and connecting youth with nature.

In order to have the stories told by students play an effective role promoting our message, we must create meaningful experiences for the students. Sometimes the opportunities come naturally, such as a Minke whale playing peekaboo with the expedition ship for days in the Drake Passage along the Antarctic Peninsula. At other times, the education program serves to inspire youth. Educators are key to making meaningful moments happen when they galvanize youth into social action or new, never-before-considered career choices.

Whenever something catalyzes a participant on our expeditions, they are excited to share their thoughts and their stories. We are better able to package stories beautiful, convey them to broader audiences, or engage on deeper levels thanks to new technologies; but at its core, our storytelling depends on our participants having a transformational experience that they are excited to talk about and share with the world.

Make the “Raw” Voice the Core of Your Branding 

This summer’s Arctic expedition saw more than 110 students and 80 staff connect with one another at the top of the world. That means there were countless points of connection and inspiration leading to stories that each of these individuals wants to share. The result is many diverse storytelling voices that are representing and creating the Students on Ice and storytelling voice.

Rather than try to control the stories and filter them to fit our media and communications strategy, it makes sense for us to incorporate these voices into our organization’s story. Bringing together all of the different moments and experiences seen through lenses made diverse by geography, culture, and personality helps to shape our own identity and keep us in touch with our audience.

The stories shared on our expedition micro-sites through student and staff blogs are honest, sometimes awkward, usually funny, and always heartening.

Make Storytelling Work for You 

Students on Ice is a platform for sharing messages of change and action in the Polar Regions. We use our storytelling strategy to share powerful messages with a broad, global audience and reach our mandate.

From our experiences with digital storytelling, we have done our best to work with new technologies and use them to our advantage to tell interesting stories. But technology alone will not tell your story, no matter how many apps or what multimedia equipment you use.

Creating meaningful experiences—for your client base and you—means that people will be excited to talk about the organization and the transformational experience they had. From there, the stories can write themselves, driven by enthusiasm and given form and structure by technologies.

Adding filters to your stories can help them stay in line with your branding, but there is value in embracing the unexpected and making raw voices part of your organizational identity. This presents an honest portrait to people who want to get involved with your programs. People connect more deeply, even digitally, when they hear a story that comes from directly one heart to another.

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Conor Leggott