How Our Arctic-Themed Art Contest Honors Young People’s Calls to Action

National Geographic Explorer Dr. Jennie Warmouth wrote this post.

When I traveled to the Arctic Circle as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow in 2019, my students at Spruce Elementary School followed along as I posted photos and stories from the field. For most, these daily snapshots provided a first glimpse into the Arctic’s pristine beauty and magnificent wildlife. My students responded with awe and wonder followed by concern regarding the impact of plastic pollution on the health of the Arctic ecosystem. Upon my return to Seattle, my second-grade students set out to change our school’s single-use plastic policy. They worked together to create and deliver a persuasive proposal to our district-level decision-makers. Once it was approved, they were tasked with educating their K-6 peers on the reasons behind the schoolwide change from single-use plastic sporks to reusable metal silverware. In doing so, they discovered the power of images as a means to convey the urgency of environmental issues, and they felt other kids could benefit from this type of learning, too!

This epiphany led to the establishment of our annual Ar(c)t(ic) Design Contest. Each year, my second-grade students and I invite children from around the world to create visual art focused on Arctic conservation. Submissions are uploaded through an online portal within our existing single-use plastic policy change website. The contest is promoted through local, regional, and national educator networks and through local partnerships.

We invite student artists ages five through 18 to create and submit 2D or 3D works along with a short written statement describing how they hope their piece will inspire conservation. An esteemed panel of National Geographic Explorers and visual artists serves as partners in the final stages of the competition’s evaluation process. This year we received 95 submissions from around the United States and curated a special exhibition for The National Nordic Museum!

Our Process

The second-grade students in my class serve as art critics for each submission. They learn to describe, analyze, interpret, and evaluate each piece. To prepare, they study the elements of art and principles of design. They also study the works of the National Geographic Explorers and visual artists serving on our expert panel.

Step 1: Upon receipt of each piece, my students verbally discuss their initial reactions, questions, and impressions. They consider how each piece makes them feel and then, through shared discourse, expand to understand how it resonates with others. The open-ended nature of this exercise helps the children learn how to consider and hold multiple points of view simultaneously. This approach strengthens their capacities for both cognitive and affective perspective-taking, providing important cornerstones for empathy development.

Step 2: They next evaluate each piece against the assessment rubric that we design and refine together. This year we scored each piece on the merits of environmental accuracy, application of artistic design principles, and empathic activation. 

  • Accuracy: Though creativity is encouraged, the pieces should not confuse or misinform the audience on topics specific to the Arctic ecosystem. Polar bears and penguins should not be pictured together, for example.
  • Art elements and design principles: Each artist’s use of color, form, line, shape, texture, value, balance, emphasis, harmony, movement, pattern, proportion, repetition, rhythm, unity, and variety is discussed.
  • Activation: Compassionate empathy, or empathic concern, is a powerful driver that can motivate people to take caring action toward other people, animals, and nature. With that in mind, the second graders evaluate how effectively each piece activates their personal sense of empathy and reverence for the natural world.

Step 3: After conducting the qualitative critiques and calculating each submission’s numeric score, we engage the mathematical practice of displaying data in graphs and tables. The top 25 percent of submissions are then sent to the panel of external adult artists and National Geographic Explorers for the final round of evaluation.

The Explorer and Artist Panel

It was thrilling for our 2022 participants to know that climate change artist and activist Zaria Forman, National Geographic Explorers Kiliii Yuyan and Mike Libecki, award-winning underwater photographer and videographer Hayes Baxley, and visual artists Ellen Ito and Nicholas Nyland would be viewing their work. To prepare for this special partnership, the 25 second-grader jurors studied the expert panel’s work. They were transfixed by Zaria Forman’s large-scale compositions that document the Arctic’s fragile beauty and were literally on the edge of their seats as they watched Hayes Baxley’s Secrets of the Whales footage. Kennedy Keith, age seven, felt that “it was good to have the grown-up judges,” noting, “I am inspired by Zaria because she makes beautiful art and puts her heart into her work. I like Hayes’s work because he spends his whole life with animals so he knows a lot about accuracy!”

As an educational researcher specializing in how children develop empathy, I was delighted to observe the connections that my students made between the panel’s work and their own lives. After watching an episode of Secrets of the Whales, Isatou Sowe, age eight, exclaimed, “I learned that orcas pass down knowledge from generation to generation just like how my mom taught me our language and her mother taught her!” Kiliii Yuyan’s photos, which appear in the cover story of the July issue of National Geographic magazine, provided us with an opportunity to learn about Indigenous cultures and wildlife in relationship with land. Nicholas Nyland and Ellen Ito’s interdisciplinary works provoked exciting conversations about color, form, and medium. The children felt charmed by the playful spirit of National Geographic Explorer Mike Libecki, who, in addition to being a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, is also a very proud dad. Mike was so moved by the children’s creativity this year that he donated personal funds to establish an additional prize to honor the artists’ hard work and commitment to conservation!

2022 Finalists

This year’s artists used a variety of mediums, including chalk pastels, watercolor, tempera, graphite, ink, markers, pens, crayons, colored pencils, digital tools, mixed-media collage, and clay. Approximately half of our artists were local to our own school, district, and the greater Seattle area. The following pieces resonated with the children and adult panelists alike.

1. “The Migration of the Tern” by Henry Jones, age six

The artist described this work as being “about how long and how far the Arctic Terns can fly. They migrate from the Arctic to Antarctica and from Antarctica to the Arctic. They fly around 25,000 miles a year. People should take care of the Arctic because it holds our whole planet together.”

2. “Sleeping Fox” by Angel Marroquin-Salazar, age 11

“I hope that people will look at my art and think about how important it is to keep the natural habitat of these animals safe,” the artist said. “I would like to know that this fox can sleep with no worries.”

3. “The Hope of Little Bear” by Daphne McDowell, age 11

In the artist’s own words: “I want people who see my artwork to think about how important it is to keep the Arctic region safe for all arctic animals. Polar bears need ice! Stop global warming!”

4. “Box of Pollution” by Omar Young, age eight

5. “The Earth Was Created for All Life…Not Just Human Life” by Jewelin Alex, age seven

“I really hope everyone can save the plants, save water and reduce pollution, so we can save the Arctic and the whole nation,” the artist said.

Why This Matters

The Ar(c)t(ic) Design Contest arose organically out of my post-expedition instruction focused on Arctic conservation. Its primary aim is to enact cognitive, affective, and compassionate empathy for the Arctic ecosystem through visual design and critical discourse. We can all work toward cultivating empathy for our Earth by actively considering the perspectives of the other-than-human inhabitants with whom we share the planet. This project provides opportunities to do so across three social spheres: within themselves for the artists, among peers for the second-grade art critics, and across the community through our curated exhibitions. Second grader Christian Bradley described the impact of the project on artists and community members alike, saying, “The artists learned about the Arctic to create their art. When people look at their art, they will think, ‘Wow, we should really stop throwing trash in the ocean.’”

Drawing on the National Geographic Society’s mission to “illuminate and protect the wonder of our world,” this student-centered project seeks to highlight species interconnections while critically examining the human impact on our shared environment. Honoring and amplifying the children’s calls to action helps position them as the next generation of environmental stewards.

During June, the National Geographic Society is celebrating our Explorers, who are exceptional individuals in their fields whom we fund and support to illuminate and protect our world through their work in science, exploration, education, and storytelling. Check back throughout the month for more stories from our Explorer community.

Dr. Jennie Warmouth is an elementary school teacher, adjunct professor of literacy, and children’s book author, with a PhD in Educational Psychology: Human Development and Cognition. Jennie’s research focuses on how children learn empathy and explores the ways in which interactions with companion animals may affect children’s development.

Photos courtesy of Jennie Warmouth

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