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Teacher takes classroom to Antarctica

Mike Penn planted the PSEA flag at the South Pole. Then, he ventured to another location in Antarctica where no human being had ever gone.

All along he conducted interactive lessons with his fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade gifted students in the Shaler Area School District, Allegheny County, as well as students throughout the world.

Penn was one of 11 teachers selected this year to participate in PolarTREC, an organization funded by the National Science Foundation that partners teachers with academic researchers to improve science education. He and four other teachers were assigned to an automatic weather station team from the University of Wisconsin to travel to Antarctica – the others were assigned to the Arctic.

“I wrote about 30 journals on stuff I was doing. Kids would write questions on the journal, and I would answer them,’’ said Penn, who left the day after Thanksgiving and returned just before New Year’s Day. “I also did a live event from the South Pole with 36 schools from seven different countries.’’


Going where no human had before

Through their interaction with Penn, the students gained insight into a real-life scientific mission in one of the world’s most hostile terrains.

The mission of Penn’s team was to maintain and install automatic weather stations – 12-foot high structures equipped with meteorological instruments to measure weather and GPS equipment to monitor glacier movement.

All the data is transmitted back to the University of Wisconsin, where it is shared with climate scientists from around the world.

“One of the stations we installed was where the coldest ever record-low temperature was recorded at negative 128 degrees,’’ Penn said. “On the day we were there, the air temperature was negative 50, and the windchill was negative 80.’’

Another station was installed in a location near the South Pole where no human beings had ever gone.

The crew flew into the location in a Twin Otter aircraft that Penn described as kind of like an airplane with skis.

“We taxied to a spot where the weather station was going to be installed, and I got out to check to make sure the contour was OK for the plane,’’ Penn said. “Where I was walking it was the first time a human had set foot there.’’


Challenges and danger

Needless to say, this was not a trip for the faint of heart.

Penn and one of the five other teachers selected for the Antarctica leg of the PolarTREC mission were able to go. The other three failed to pass the battery of medical and other tests administered in New Zealand before the team took off for Antarctica.

“The weather overall was very bad and unpredictable; it was hard at times for the pilots to distinguish the ground from the sky,’’ Penn said, adding it took the team eight days to reach the South Pole after arriving on the continent.

It was also the period of 24-hour daylight in Antarctica. That, and the challenges posed by the weather, meant the team worked when it could and slept when it could.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘fun’ to describe it,’’ Penn said. “It was challenging, but also very exciting and interesting.’’

He did admit, however, to one event that was fun – “running a race around the world.’’

Penn traversed a 2.1-mile circle around the South Pole that took him through 24 different time zones.

“You can step from today into tomorrow, and from yesterday back into today,’’ he said. “It’s pretty cool.’’


Teaching still biggest thrill

For all the excitement and privilege of serving on the research team, the biggest thrill for Penn still boils down to being an educator.

Penn assembled strong credentials from his 27 years in the classroom, particularly regarding science. That made him eligible for such a prestigious program.

His classroom at Shaler features a spacecraft simulator – “it resembles the Starship Enterprise’’ – that he designed and built. There are 16 stations, which are staffed by students who must successfully collaborate or their mission fails.

Penn had his students help him with what was his second application for a PolarTREC mission. He was rejected once before, so he asked students to critique his original application and suggest areas where he could improve it.

Now back at Shaler, he has incorporated aspects of his journey into his teachings, is still writing interactive journals, and is traveling throughout the Pittsburgh area speaking at schools. He will now be a mentor for future teachers headed on PolarTREC expeditions.

Despite the landscape and sheer awesomeness of being in Antarctica, Penn said perhaps his biggest thrill was the reaction of students who interacted with him.

“As a teacher, it was so exciting to know there were kids really excited and interested,’’ Penn said. “The kids who were asking questions were the same kids you couldn’t get interested in the exact same things if you were teaching them out of a textbook.’’