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Remote assignment

Middle school teacher heads to the end of the world for science education


On Nov. 9, I stepped away from my eighth-grade classroom at O. Henry Middle School in Austin, Texas, and made my way to the icy worlds of McMurdo Station, South Pole Station and a remote site on the Antarctic plateau called AGO 4. I was participating in the PolarTREC program, which brings together polar researchers and teacher to help strengthen science curriculum in the classroom.

My initial impressions of Antarctica were striking. Stepping onto the ice from the belly of a huge military cargo plane, I was hit with a blast of cold air and blinding light. To the north and east were hundreds of miles of sea ice, to the south and west were snow-covered mountains. My adventure had begun.

As we left behind the sea ice and drove into McMurdo Station, the landscape grew more familiar. Dirt roads, vehicles and buildings made McMurdo feel more like a small mining town than an isolated research station.

Robert F. Scott and his men first built on Antarctic soil in 1902, when they erected a shelter called Discovery Hut. It wasn’t until 1955 when the U.S. Naval Air Force constructed a base near the hut that McMurdo Station was established.

Over the years, the station grew, and humans altered the environment around them. Unusable goods such as oil drums and derelict vehicles were dumped into the icy waters of McMurdo Sound, landfills were added as more waste was produced, and untreated sewage flowed out into McMurdo Sound.

The Antarctic Treaty, an international agreement to protect Antarctica both politically and environmentally, helped change this pattern by adopting the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which includes procedures to curtail pollution.

Instead of dumping trash into landfills at McMurdo, waste is carefully sorted and shipped back to the United States. In 2001, a sewage treatment plant was established and now only treated water is pumped back into the sea. There are strict protocols on avoiding and cleaning up fuel and chemical spills, and wind turbines were recently installed to lower fuel dependency for power.

To help ensure McMurdo is not reversing course, a research team from Texas A&M University, led by principal investigator Mahlon Kennicutt, annually monitors the level of pollutants like trace metals and hydrocarbons in the sediment. I had the incredible opportunity of spending four weeks with this team, assisting them in their research while reporting what I was learning back to my classroom through an online journal and live video chats.

We began by collecting sediment samples on the seafloor where debris and sewage have affected the ecosystem. To access the seafloor, we used a large machine to drill a dive hole through the two-meter-thick sea ice. A dive hut was dragged over the hole to allow divers to stay warm and keep the hole from freezing shut.

Terry Palmer, our team member from the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, along with Steve Rupp, a professional diver with Raytheon Polar Services, dove into the 28 degree Fahrenheit water wearing insulated dry suits to stay warm. They returned with sediment samples and marine organisms, whose tissues will also be tested for pollutants. I was fascinated by the variety of life that would surface from the dark, icy waters: bright orange starfish, lanky sea spiders, and slimy polychaete worms were just some of the creatures that emerged.

We also collected sediment samples nine miles north of McMurdo Station at Turtle Rock. As we approached the sampling site, I noticed large dark shapes dotting the ice. About 50 Weddell seals, mostly mothers nursing their pups, greeted us. I was mesmerized by the seals and sat for hours watching them bask in the sun and listening to their grunts and strange creaking noises.

After our team collected sediment samples from the seafloor, we moved onto land. A computer program randomly selected sampling locations around McMurdo Station, including areas that had a higher likelihood of chemical or fuel spills.

Andrew Klein, the leader of our research team and a geography professor at Texas A&M University, and Joni Kincaid, his graduate student, taught me how to locate sampling spots using a GPS. We collected sediment samples and shipped them back to Texas A&M University to be analyzed for contamination by senior research associate Steve Sweet.

Our research team needed to collect sediment samples away from McMurdo Station to compare our results. We took a helicopter to Cape Bird, which sits on the opposite side of Ross Island, about 35 miles north of McMurdo Station. We passed by Mount Erebus, an active volcano, and miles of pristine ice to land on a rocky coast that had a strange and distinct mottled appearance.

The Cape Bird penguin rookery is occupied by about 35,000 pairs of breeding Adélie penguins. We collected sediment samples away from the rookery and spent the afternoon watching penguins. The short, sometimes clumsy birds would walk right by me as they traveled from their nests into the ocean.

After our sampling work was done, the Texas A&M group prepared for their return to Texas. I prepared for my next adventure: traveling to the South Pole and a remote field site.

Two engineers from New Jersey Institute of Technology, Bob Melville and Andy Stillinger, invited me to spend a week with them out on the Antarctic plateau fixing and replacing instruments that record changes in the magnetic fields of the sun and the earth, auroral phenomena and radio signals that monitor the ionosphere. This new expedition entailed spending a few days at the South Pole acclimating to the high altitude before venturing out on the ice sheet.

On Dec. 12, I took a small cargo plane to the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station. I was greeted by biting minus 20F temperatures and less oxygen than I was used to. The station sits at an elevation of 9,300 feet, most of it ice. The cold, dry air, combined with changes in ambient pressure, makes Antarctica’s altitude feel even higher on the lungs.

There are many fascinating and unexpected scientific discoveries being made at the South Pole Station. I had time to learn about these experiments, since my plane was delayed for two weeks due to bad weather.

I climbed into the South Pole Telescope, which is mapping the universe using microwaves, and I took a tour and snowmobile ride around the IceCube and Askaryan Radio Array projects, which use miles of clean ice to filter and record neutrinos, elusive subatomic particles that can reveal information about large-scale cosmic events like supernova explosions. 

After spending two weeks engrossed in the science at the station, we finally had good weather, and I prepared to leave with Bob, Andy, and our field coordinator, Susan Whitley. We flew 550 miles over a monotonous sheet of ice to land precariously on an un-groomed runway in the middle of nowhere. From my window, I could see a small orange box that stood out amongst an endless white landscape.

The orange box is one of five space weather-monitoring stations in Antarctica known as an Automatic Geophysical Observatory (AGO). Keeping the AGOs working is important because they help scientists understand and predict changes in the magnetic field, auroras and the ionosphere.

There is a fundamental relationship between magnetism and electricity, where a change in one affects a change in the other. Changes in Earth's magnetic field are largely caused by the sun. Charged particles (e.g., electrons and protons) escape the sun through solar wind that flows outward and hits Earth’s upper atmosphere. There, it creates electrical currents and changes Earth’s magnetism.

Changes in the magnetic fields cause changes in the electricity on the ground. Pipelines, telephone lines and electricity lines can become charged with thousands of volts of current because of solar storms. Scientists fear that future solar events could severely damage satellites and other infrastructure if we don’t improve our understanding and ability to predict such events. The AGOs provide useful records of changes in the magnetic field and ionosphere.

Bob and Andy are the MacGyvers of polar technology. Each year they return to the AGOs to replace, reset and update equipment. Given the remote locations of the AGOs, they cannot be perfectly prepared for all problems and are extremely resourceful. I once watched Andy improve the amplification of the Ham radio at the South Pole by using a part from an old television set! I was excited to spend a few days with these engineers at the AGO.

After stepping out of the Twin Otter at AGO 4, wind chills of minus 35F beat against me, and after a few steps, I was already gasping for air. This was the Antarctica I had expected. Setting up a bathroom or sleeping tent became monumental achievements. Luckily there was refuge and hot cocoa inside the AGO. I was hesitant to go and sleep in my tent on the ice, but found it surprisingly warm. I awoke the next morning to find my toothpaste, along with other items, completely frozen. That was the moment I fell in love with Antarctica.

I spent my second day at the AGO digging a five-foot trench to house an Automatic Weather Station (AWS) donated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Shoveling snow was a daunting task because of the cold weather, lack of oxygen and quick exhaustion.

I installed the base of the AWS, which would record basic information about temperature, humidity, pressure, solar radiation, and wind speed and direction. When the plane came to drop off Andy and our cargo, I knew I had to get on it so I could return to Austin in time to teach. Plane delays are common in Antarctica, and if there’s a plane leaving, you’re best to take it!

Leaving the AGO was difficult. I felt like I had finally encountered the harsh continent I had come to Antarctica to find. As I watched my frozen toothpaste thaw after leaving the field site, I knew my time in Antarctica had ended.

Luckily, my Antarctic adventures inspired new lessons back in the classroom. I am constantly finding connections between what I learned in Antarctica with the lessons I am teaching. My experiences as a research assistant at McMurdo provide a model for teaching scientific methods to my students. Lessons about heat transfer or adaptations can now be taught through the lens of Weddell seals or Adélie penguins.

Bob and Andy have inspired me to incorporate engineering and math into my teaching. They helped me create a video for my students that calculated the Earth’s tilt by measuring my height and shadow while at the South Pole on solstice. I am eager to build a Ham radio and seismometer (to measure earthquakes) in my classroom with their help. Lastly, I plan to teach students about space weather and the importance of monitoring changes in the Earth’s magnetic field.

I feel extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity to travel to Antarctica and learn exciting science with researchers and engineers, but feel even luckier to experience this as a teacher, so that I can share what I have learned with my students and hopefully instill in them a wonder of science.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs