Ball State Students, Faculty View Northern Lights in Yellowknife, Learn About Arctic Life

Instead of hitting tropical beaches or lounging poolside during their Spring Break, a group of 10 adventurous Ball State University students in March donned heavy parkas and embarked on a journey to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada—a 14-hour plane trip away. Their aim? To witness the breathtaking phenomenon of the aurora borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights, as part of the course, HONR 176: Inquiries in the Physical Sciences (Exploring the Northern Lights).

Photo of 10 students and their faculty advisor posing for a photo on Ball State's campus before embarking on a trip to see the Northern Lights.

Led by Dr. Sundeep Rayat, professor of chemistry, and Dr. Patricia Lang, professor emerita of chemistry, the course delved into the scientific intricacies behind the aurora borealis, covering topics including heat transfer, chemical bonding, geomagnetic storms, and atomic structure.

However, the trip was more than an opportunity to witness a natural wonder in person; it was also an experience that immersed students in the Arctic lifestyle and culture. From ice fishing on frozen lakes to braving temperatures as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit, every moment was an opportunity for discovery

“Students relayed in their written reflections how difficult it must be to live in those conditions,” Dr. Rayat said. “We went ice fishing, and it was three hours before anyone caught a fish. It’s difficult.”

“There are communities in the Arctic that are not reachable by land in the Summer,” she continued. “In the Winter, the lakes in Canada’s far north freeze and turn into ice roads which connect them to the outside world. That is the only time the heavy trucks can travel to these communities and provide necessary goods for the year. Ice roads also serve as the only overland supply route to the diamond mines in the Arctic when fuel, heavy equipment, and construction materials are trucked to the mines. Otherwise, they have to rely on small planes that can only carry so much.”

For Caleb Roberts, a freshman majoring in graphic design, it was an adventure of a lifetime.

“Education can take you further than just a degree or a grade,” said Mr. Roberts. “I’d recommend this kind of trip to any student who wanted to take a risk and experience something completely new.”

Ball State students on a trip to see the Northern Lights huddled for a photo against the starlit backdrop of the open skies coloured by the Aurora Borealis

Nearly one-quarter of Yellowknife’s population is indigenous people made up of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit. Students gained insights into their culture, traditions, and way of life—learning valuable lessons about resilience, sustainability, and cultural diversity. The Northwest Territories recognizes nine official Aboriginal languages, as well as English and French.

But perhaps the most awe-inspiring moments came during the nights when the sky came alive with vibrant hues of green and purple as the aurora borealis danced across the sky. For many students, seeing this natural spectacle firsthand was a transformative experience that left a lasting impression and sparked a newfound appreciation of the wonders of the universe.

“The Northern Lights show you just how small you are and how vast our world is,” Mr. Roberts said.

Reflecting on the trip, Dr. Rayat expressed her joy in sharing this experience with her students and seeing their excitement.

“I think trips like this—these firsthand experiences—are transformative,” Dr. Rayat said. “The connections and stories that students develop among themselves and the faculty are so important. They’re building that community of support and sense of belonging on campus that is crucial for their success.”

Ultimately, the journey to Yellowknife wasn’t just about chasing Northern Lights; it was about pursuing knowledge, cultural understanding of the people of the far north, and personal growth. For the students, it was an experience they will carry with them for a lifetime.

Follow Us