Barbara Schulz, a biology teacher at Seattle's Lakeside School, had to think hard about her answer when a co-worker asked why she wanted to spend a month studying the ability of microorganisms to survive in the harsh climate of the world's most remote and frigid laboratory.
But Schulz's response was understandable. She couldn't conceive of anyone not wanting to take advantage of a National Science Foundation (NSF) program that pairs classroom teachers with Antarctic scientists, providing educators with an unparalleled opportunity to help conduct real science on the world's southernmost continent.
"When she asked me `Why would anyone want to go there?'" Schulz said with a laugh, "I said `You must not be a science person'."
Schulz, along with four colleagues from across the United States, recently attended an orientation session at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Va. to learn from experts what they could expect -- and what would be expected of them -- as one of six K-12 teachers taking part in NSF's Teacher Experience in Antarctica (TEA) program.
The briefing ranged from lessons on the dynamics of glaciers to advice to appreciate the greenery during a stopover in New Zealand, to, oh yes, making sure their thermal underwear fits properly.
NSF runs the U.S. Antarctic program and coordinates and schedules scientific research there. The TEA program began in 1992 as part of the effort to make Antarctic research more accessible to the public. This year, 22 teachers were nominated by NSF researchers for the limited number of available slots. The six selected will spend their three- to four-week stints working with research scientists at one of several Antarctic research stations or on one of the NSF's research vessels.
Wayne Sukow, head of workforce education and research in NSF's education and human resources directorate, said the TEA program infuses the excitement of Antarctic research into education. "Both the scientists and the teachers gain a new respect for each other and change their views of what each other does," Sukow said. He notes that the program also helps to meet the foundation's goal of integrating research and education.
Dennis Peacock, the head of NSF's Antarctic sciences section, told the TEA participants their predecessors have helped to fulfill TEA's mission by undertaking such projects as developing a site on the Internet's World Wide Web to reach global audiences. "What we're asking from you is leveraging," he said. "When you go back to work, you're going to be so influential. Think about curriculum. Think about public speaking. Be an ambassador for science.''
Peter Amati, a teacher at Holliston High School in Massachusetts, who traveled to Antarctica in 1992, noted that for teachers, accustomed to being in complete charge of their classrooms, the experience of working with scientists who have only a few months to conduct crucial research can be trying. "Remember," he told his colleagues, "there'll be a lot of tension, but it won't be directed at you. It's stressful. It's difficult.. But it's wonderful."
Schulz, meanwhile, said she is excited not only about the opportunity to carry out research in a continent-sized outdoor laboratory where few scientists ever work, but also to have the chance to share the excitement of science with as many other people as possible. "I think science teachers, in general, have a responsibility to reach out to the research community and to become a conduit for translating what's going on in the laboratory to the general public," she said. "The prospective English majors in my science class may never take another science course."