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STEM at high altitude

Many Met Office staff take part in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) activities at sea-level, whether it’s at Met Office Science Camp or other events. But when Hamish Steptoe, Applied Climate Scientist, had the opportunity to join an expedition to the Indian Himalayas, he jumped at the chance. Here Hamish describes the highs and lows of delivering STEM activities at an average height of 4,500 m above sea-level.

The British Exploring Society is a charity providing personal development opportunities to young people aged 16-25 from a diverse range of backgrounds. The organisation runs five-week expeditions to remote, wilderness environments, inspiring young people to develop confidence, teamwork, leadership and spirit of adventure, and help them better understand the world around us. An integral part of this is scientific investigation so the society carries out expedition projects.

As Science Leader on this summer’s expedition to a remote part of the Zanskar Valley in Ladakh, India, my role was to engage young explorers (YEs) in meteorology and encourage them to ask questions relating to the environments and processes they were seeing. To avoid limiting activities to particular age groups, I planned projects with work accessible at different levels. With help from the University of Reading, I took a variety of mounted and handheld instrumentation which helped introduce basic concepts of meteorological observing.

Stepping outside the classroom

At 4,500 m, simply walking up the moderate 10 m incline to the met-station required a few minutes rest to catch my breath. Daily challenges – sleeping in tents, eating ration packs and long days outdoors – meant that encouraging YEs to engage in science during early mornings or late evenings was really demanding.

However, when we started taking basic observations, the YEs quickly realised the importance of understanding and predicting the weather in an expedition environment – from choosing clothes for the day to planning routes to a nearby peak. Stepping outside of the classroom gives an immediate relevance to the science you are teaching. Even 7.30am sessions were surprisingly popular given the time of day, and the handheld instruments gave the benefit of providing real-time information. A forecasting guide I prepared gave students an opportunity to take things further and make basic forecasts of daily minimum and maximum temperatures, calculate wind chill, heat stress, and cloud-base height.

Expect the unexpected

Planning and preparation is essential for expeditions, but some things you just can’t foresee. Half-way through the expedition, when most people were comfortable with the daily routine, a Himalayan Brown Bear entered our camp. After a few nights, the bear broke into tents to find food. Eventually we had to relocate our camp, and activities were delayed by a week. Such is expedition life.

As Naomi Holmes, Chief Scientist on the India Expedition put it: “Expeditions never go exactly to plan, and this was the case for the 2016 British Exploring Himalaya expedition. The environment was challenging and it was necessary to change the original plans. Despite this the scientific programme was successful with lots of young people engaging with a variety of scientific ideas and techniques. Since the expedition many of them have continued to pursue scientific interests.”

A youth expedition to a remote part of northern India was not restful but the rewards were huge. As a personal development opportunity, giving me the chance to expand my leadership experience, develop and deliver my own science plan and enthuse a range of young people about weather and climate science, it was incredibly rewarding to see the development of the YEs throughout the trip. Despite the challenges, for YEs this was a chance to see what meteorology can do for them, and understand how weather and climate impacts all our lives.