Antarctica Blog Connects Students With Science

By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, Jan. 2011 – Connecting scientists to elementary and high school students worldwide was one of many accomplishments during last year’s Operation Deep Freeze, the military’s support of National Science Foundation research in Antarctica.

In 2010, Air Force Lt. Col. Ed “Hertz” Vaughan spent 50 days as commander of McMurdo Detachment 1 and deputy commander of the 13th Air Expeditionary Group, Joint Task Force Support Forces Antarctica. There, he braved temperatures that often dipped below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit to support the U.S. Antarctic Program, the National Science Foundation’s science mission in Antarctica.

During his time in Antarctica he shared his experiences, “Dispatches from Antarctica,” through the Defense Media Activity’s blog, “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military,” from Sept. 27 to Nov. 1.

In Vaughan’s second blog post Oct. 15, he shared his experience of arriving in Antarctica by plane: “Bundled and stiff, lips stuck-dried to smiling teeth, we waddled from the airplane to Ivan the Terra Bus. Again we were swaddled. Contact frost from airplane breath grew ice fractals on the inside of frozen windows obscuring the 35 minute ride to … McMurdo Station.”

John Ohab, a new technology strategist who coordinated this series for the Defense Department, shared the posts with the Department of Defense Education Activity and an elementary school in Maryland.

One of Ohab’s goals for this series, he said, was to provide an opportunity for students and teachers to connect with Vaughan during his deployment to Antarctica. Through contacts with DoDEA and other schools, he received questions from science teachers in advance and provided them to Vaughan.

Vaughan’s responses will be featured in three posts on Armed with Science this month. Questions submitted by Arnold Elementary School in Arnold, Md., will be featured tomorrow. Questions from DoDEA students will be featured Jan. 11 and 14.

“Being a bit of a science fanatic, I love exposing my students to anything unique in science,” said Jennifer Watkins, fourth-grade teacher at DoDEA’s Osan American Elementary School in Osan, South Korea. She added that DoDEA officials frequently share such opportunities with science teachers within the Defense Department school system.

“I usually read through them and pick activities that are age-appropriate or ones I feel will enhance science learning for my students,” Watkins said. “To me, it is just another avenue that lets others know how important science is in our everyday life. I teach my students that most of what they have now would not be possible without science.”

Watkins said prior to “Dispatches from Antarctica,” she had never heard of the Defense Media Activity’s science-related blogging platform. Her students were very excited about the project, she added, and pleased to be a part of the learning opportunity and the “big takeaway” from this type of exchange.

Laurie Arensdorf, who teaches fifth graders at Kinser Elementary School in Okinawa, Japan, said she always is looking for ways to incorporate the technology into the overall DoDEA standards. She added that the timing of “Dispatches from Antarctica” coincided well with experiments her students were conducting in the classroom.

“We had learned how scientists create experiments and variables that might impact the results,” she said. “The activity led quite nicely into the work that Operation Deep Freeze does each day. Some of the students' questions represented the work we had done in class and their interest in how scientists in Antarctica operate.”

The students were surprised to learn that service members are stationed in Antarctica, she said. “They were amazed to learn that military members just like their mom and dad are stationed down in Antarctica,” she added.

Watkins said the learning opportunity provided for technology exchange in the classroom. “This was the first time I have done this type of exchange with a class before,” she said.
“My students [and I] learn more about mysterious Antarctica,” she added. “They feel important, because their questions were answered by someone who is there doing the research, and they generate more questions and dig a bit deeper.

“We did a class discussion about Antarctica, as we had been working on map skills in social studies and had discussed Antarctica already,” she continued. “Then the students just called out questions. I wrote their questions, along with their name, on the board.”

Arensdorf added that programs like Armed with Science expand the realm of possibility for her students.

“Programs such as those available through Armed with Science give our students the opportunity to realize there is more to the world than what resides inside the four walls of a classroom,” she said. “I consider myself so fortunate to be able to teach in a time where we can offer these opportunities to our students.”

She added that “Dispatches from Antarctica” helped to share the important work carried out by Defense Department scientists around the world, and that sharing their work highlights the career potential in this demanding, but rewarding career field.

“The students always enjoy doing science experiments, but in fifth grade they don't always realize the career opportunities that could extend from things they enjoy in a classroom,” she explained. “This activity opened their eyes to such things, and I think that some of their questions reflected an interest in learning more about these types of careers.”

For example, one of the questions submitted to Vaughan asked what advantages exist for scientists in Antarctica.

“Aside from the cold,” Vaughan answered, “Antarctica has vast areas untouched and unspoiled by human activity. Science that requires research in large areas of pristine landscape may find unique advantages here. The South Pole offers a unique vantage point for space observations, particularly with 24/7 darkness half the year.

“There are many species only found in Antarctica,” he continued. “In some cases, the food chains of these species have remained constant for many years, permitting scientists to compare such ecosystems with other more distressed systems around the globe. There are atmospheric qualities in Antarctica, such as the ozone hole, which make this a prime spot to research effects in the lower and upper atmosphere.”

“Very thick areas of ice accumulated over centuries, such as the 10,000 feet deep ice around the South Pole, provide glimpses back in time, like the rings on a tree,” Vaughan added. Atmospheric phenomena from hundreds, even thousands, of years ago leave chemical traces on the surface of the ice. As the seasons and years bury old ice with new, a record remains. Scientists drill for cores of these records and can correlate data with other sources to gain information on climate change activity over time.

“Additionally,” he wrote, “the ice and snow which covers most of the land area provide a visual advantage for scientists searching for meteorites. In some places, meteorites are easier to find here as they tend to stand out from the surrounding white terrain. A cursory examination of the National Science Foundation’s office of polar program’s website gives even more examples as to why this is a one of kind place yielding invaluable science.”

Related Sites:
“Dispatches from Antarctica”