Brrrr! Expeditions to the North and South Poles

Brrrr! Expeditions to the North and South Poles
Frances Cleveland: Economics, Discovery and Daily Life

Skill: Elementary School
Time Required: One week


In the first two decades of the 20th century, five men made history by traveling to and exploring both the North and South Poles.  Their exploits were dangerous and exciting, and the whole world followed their adventures through newspaper accounts and magazine articles.  Their names are synonymous with determination and bravery: Admiral Robert Peary, Matthew Henson, Dr. Frederic Cook, Robert Scott, and Roald Amundsen.


The purpose of this lesson is to acquaint students with the first successful explorations of the North and South Poles, through a study of the four men who accomplished them.  Students will present the fruits of their research on posters, or with PowerPoint presentations.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet Access to print materials PowerPoint presentation software, Or, art supplies and tag board World map or large globe


1.  Introduce the lesson by asking students to point out the Poles on the map or globe, and discuss their relative geographies—is the geography similar or different? In what ways?
2.  As background, review the story of the races to find the North and South Poles. Be sure students understand that these men were competing to see who could get to the Pole first. Remind students that this was at the turn of the 20th century, without all the communication devices, all-weather clothing, and other improvements we have today to make exploration safer.
3.  Divide the class in half.  From one half, create as many groups of three as possible, assigning students in each group to research the North Pole explorers (Peary, Henson, and Cook).  From the other half, create as many groups of two as possible, assigning students in each group to research the South Pole explorers (Scott and Amundsen).  Each student should be researching one explorer.
4.  Each students should be sure to include the following in his or her research:

  • A brief biography of the explorer
  • His reason for trying to reach the Pole
  • The forms of transportation he used
  • The supplies taken
  • Obstacles faced during the journey
  • How he overcame these obstacles
  • His status at the end: was he considered a hero?  Why or why not?

4.  When the research is complete, re-group the students by explorer studied (e.g., all those who researched Admiral Peary become one group, Henson another group, etc.)
5.  Each new group should now compare and pool their findings and prepare a poster or PowerPoint presentation for the rest of the class.
6.  Each group should have the opportunity to present their findings to the class.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson might be extended by using the same protocols to study explorers of other places, including those explorers to sailed the world in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the space explorers of today.

Sources & Resources:


Bedesky, Baron.  Peary and Henson: The Race to the North Pole. New York: Crabtree Publishing, 2006.
Henderson, Bruce.  True North: Peary, Cook, and the Race to the Pole. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
Preston, Diana.  A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Rees, Jasper.  The Great Race: Recreating Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole. London: BBC Books, 2006.
North Pole
Robert Peary: To the Top of the World
Follow the Footsteps of the Great Explorers: Robert Peary 
Conquest of the North: Story of Com. Peary’s Life 

Matthew Henson’s Accomplishments 
Matthew Henson: Profile 
Matthew Henson on Wikipedia 
Matthew Henson, Arctic Explorer 

Frederick A. Cook: A Short Biography 
The Frederick A. Cook Society 
Cook’s Confession 
Dr. Cook’s Infamous “Box Hoax” 
South Pole
Robert Falcon Scott 
Captain Robert Falcon Scott 
The Discovery Expedition 

Roald Amundsen: First to the South Pole 
Roald Amundsen: Polar Explorer 
Roald Amundsen: Biography 
The Great Explorers: Roald Amundsen 
This lesson was adapted by Averil McClelland, Kent State University, from a DiscoverySchool lesson called Polar Expeditions