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Introduction and Overview

This guide is intended to spark discussion of and reflection on The Greely Expedition, an AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary that tells the story of a pioneering scientific mission, led by Adolphus Greely and funded by the U.S. Army, to the Arctic. In 1882, members of Greely's team established a world record for reaching farther north than any human being ever had before them; they also collected an extensive and unprecedented set of scientific observations. But the ship that was supposed to bring Greely and his men back to the U.S. failed to reach the expedition, leading to starvation and death among crew members -- and to accounts of cannibalism that tainted Greely's reputation as well as the team's achievements for decades. In recent years, however, the data that Greely and his 24 men collected have contributed key insights to scientists' understanding of climate change and global warming.

This guide can be used by educators, students, and other viewers as a starting point from which to discuss and analyze the achievements of -- and the controversy surrounding -- the Greely expedition, as well as the foundation that this historic expedition laid for the burgeoning field of climate science. The film and guide can serve as resources in earth science, geology, biology, history, government, civics, social studies, world affairs, English, and writing courses.

Learning Objectives and Curriculum Standards

The Greely Expedition provides a compelling point of departure for discussion, writing, and activities that meet an array of state and national curriculum standards and benchmarks. These include fostering an understanding of:

  • The qualities necessary for effective leadership, and the ethical dilemmas that often confront leaders as they seek to balance competing interests and constituencies
  • The relationships among science, technology, society, and the individual
  • The impact of human actions on the physical environment (e.g., changes in climate, air pollution, water pollution, expanding human settlement)
  • The factors that can alter the Earth's climate (e.g., changes in the composition of the atmosphere; variations in ocean temperature; geological shifts such as the advance or retreat of glaciers)
  • The process of exploration, colonization, and settlement of different regions of the world, and the role that government plays in fostering such exploration
  • The ways in which trends in science have influenced society, including the structure and organization of scientific and technological research and the role of governments and scientific communities within such research
  • Standards adapted from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning's Content Knowledge Standards and Benchmark Database (www.mcrel.org/standards).

Using This Guide

This guide is divided into two parts. Part One, Discussing the Film, presents a series of discussion questions organized into three thematic blocks that focus on the scientific aspects of Greely's path-breaking mission; qualities of leadership; and questions about national and individual priorities and values that are illuminated by Greely's story. These questions can be used for small-group or whole-class discussion, or as writing prompts. In Part Two, Activities and Extensions, you'll find suggested projects and activities to extend students' engagement with the film and its key themes. Please note that in addition to its national broadcast on PBS, The Greely Expedition will be available for online viewing in streaming format at www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/greely/player/ as of February 1, 2011.

Part One: Discussing the Film

Before Viewing

As a class, discuss the notion of a quest. Using examples from history or literature, identify the elements that define a quest. Encourage students to keep these elements in mind as they watch The Greely Expedition, which chronicles Adolphus Greely's quest to understand the earth's climate by exploring its polar regions.

During Viewing

The film depicts a series of turning points at which crucial and, in many cases, life-altering decisions had to be made -- beginning with the decision by Greely and the crew members to embark on their expedition. As students watch the film, ask them to note each turning point and the decision that was made. Then discuss:

  • Based on the information that the decision-maker had at the time, was this choice a good one?
  • What was the impact of this choice?
  • With the benefit of hindsight, how do you evaluate this decision?
  • What lessons about decision-making can you derive when you consider all the turning points that occurred during the Greely expedition?

After Viewing

The following post-viewing discussion questions are organized into three strands, focusing on the pioneering scientific mission of the Greely expedition; the ways in which Greely and other figures in this story illuminate key qualities of leadership; and questions raised by the expedition regarding individual as well as societal values and priorities.

A Revolutionary Scientific Mission
An unprecedented quest. Review Chapter 1 of the film. What aspects of Adolphus Greely's background prepared him for the expedition he undertook in 1881? What were Greely's motivations for embarking on this quest, and what risks did he and the crew members who accompanied him face? Why did the expedition not have a ship of its own, and how did Greely feel about this fact? You may want to read Greely's biography.

A new scientific frontier. What scientific questions did Greely's mission set out to answer? Where did the members of the Greely expedition go in order to answer these questions? What does Michael Robinson mean when he states that the Greely expedition "was really an attempt at a new science of the world"? What was the First International Polar Year, and what role did Greely's expedition play in it? What world record was set by the Greely expedition, and why was this important?

Life in the polar regions. Examine the gallery entitled "Images from the Arctic," which includes photos of the Greely expedition's crew, camp, and daily life. It is online at www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/photo-gallery/greely/

Then, using details from these photos and from the film, describe a typical day for members of the Greely expedition as they were conducting their research. What scientific activities did the expedition members engage in? Which crew members distinguished themselves, and in what ways? What tensions arose among the men, and how did this affect the expedition? You may want to read excerpts from the journals of Greely, Lt. Brainard and Lt. Rice.

Qualities of Leadership
Shifting views of a commander. Over the course of the expedition, how and why did the men serving with Greely change their views of their commander? What do you see as Greely's most positive character traits as leader? What do you see as his flaws? Cite specific actions Greely took to support your answers.

A controversial decision. The narrator states that Greely followed his orders "to the letter." Do you see this as a strength or a weakness? Why? Review Chapter 3 of the film, which describes Greely's decision to leave Fort Conger. What led Greely to make this choice, and what were its pros and cons? What would you have done if you had been in Greely's position? Why did some crew members propose a mutiny, and what was the outcome of this suggestion? Under what circumstances, if any, do you believe it is justified for members of the military (or of other groups or organizations) to disobey their orders? You may want to look at the Interactive Map of the team's journey after leaving Fort Conger.

Henrietta Greely: A resourceful advocate. What leadership qualities did Henrietta Greely display, and how did these qualities challenge traditional views of the role of women during the 1880s? How did officials in Congress, the Army, and the White House respond to her requests that they send a rescue mission to reach Greely and his men? After being rebuffed by military officials and lawmakers, what new tactic did Henrietta adopt? How did her decision to go to the press alter the situation?

Assessing Priorities and Policies
The government's role in funding science. One of the central questions raised in this film involves the role of the government in funding scientific research. What arguments are presented for and against government support of scientific endeavors such as the Greely expedition? What arguments can you add to this list? Of these arguments, which do you find most persuasive? Why?

Gestures of humanity. In an interview in the film, Jerry Kobalenko refers to Shorty Fredericks' decision to walk for hours across the ice in order to bury George Rice's body as "an amazing gesture." What are some other examples of crew members' gestures of humanity toward one another? What do you think motivated the men to help each other, even if it meant putting their own lives in peril? Can you imagine a situation in which you would risk your own life to help someone else? Discuss.

Part Two: Activities and Extensions

A new view of the Earth. Michael Robinson, author of The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture, speaks eloquently about the role that the Greely expedition played in creating a new, "holistic" conception of the Earth. Watch additional portions of Robinson's interview, which can be found online at www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/greely/. Then, using material from Robinson's online interview along with information in the film, come up with a definition -- in your own words -- of a "holistic sense of science." As part of your definition, be sure to explain why the Arctic is important in a holistic view of the Earth.

Climate change then and now. Near the end of the film, Michael Robinson states that scientists today are using Greely's data to understand global warming and to show "how human beings have changed nature." Find out more about how the climate of the polar region has changed since Greely laid the foundations for this field of study by gathering extensive data on Arctic conditions. According to scientists, what are the likely short-term and longer-term consequences of warming in the polar regions? What can be done to counteract global warming? Share your findings with classmates in an oral presentation that includes concrete steps ordinary citizens can take to combat climate change. One useful starting point for this research is http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/effects/polarregions.html. You may want to read the article about the International Polar Year.

Moral and ethical dilemmas. As the film makes clear, members of the Greely expedition faced an ongoing series of moral and ethical choices, many of which involved life-and-death decisions. Working with a small group of classmates, examine one of the ethical dilemmas listed below, or select another presented in the film. Then discuss and debate the options available to participants, the decision that was ultimately made, and the consequences of this choice. What would you have done in the same situation? Is there consensus within your group about what the morally correct course of action was? Dilemmas to analyze include:

  1. The choice George Rice faced about whether to take the 150 pounds of meat that the men found back to Camp Clay, or to drag Ellison back to the camp after he collapsed as a result of frostbite (Chapter 4)
  2. Greely's decision about whether or not to shoot Private Henry after Henry was discovered stealing food from the other men (Chapter 5)
  3. David Brainard's dilemma about whether or not to lead a mutiny against Greely after leaving Fort Conger (Chapter 3)

Witnesses to history. Several members of the Greely expedition kept journals in which they chronicled their experiences and thoughts during this historic mission. Read one or more of these remarkable eyewitness accounts, posted online at www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/fils/greely/. Then imagine that you are part of a team that is creating a museum exhibit on the Greely expedition. Using the journal entries as your main source, come up with a one-page profile of this member of the Greely expedition. Use details from the journal entries to create a portrait that conveys a sense of the journal writer's interests, character, outlook, and accomplishments.

Culminating activity: Assessing Greely's legacy. The film's narrator states that once evidence of cannibalism surfaced among members of the Greely expedition, Greely was "portrayed as a monster." After watching and reflecting on the film, do you think this portrayal was fair? How do you think Greely should be remembered? What did he achieve? Was he an effective and visionary leader -- or were the accusations against him justified? Take a stand on this question in a persuasive essay, citing specific details from the documentary to support your view.

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