Teacher relates his trip to Antarctica to Leechburg elementary school students
Life below zero isn’t easy — but it’s rewarding.
That’s the message teacher Michael Penn presented during a PowerPoint presentation to fourth-grade students from David Leech Elementary School on Friday, chronicling his recent polar adventures in Antarctica.
Penn, 54, of Beaver County is a teacher in the Shaler Area School District. He was one of 11 U.S. teachers chosen nationwide to participate in the 2018 PolarTREC (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating) five-week research exhibition program.
A STEAM coordinator and teacher of gifted fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Shaler Elementary School, Penn traveled to the McMurdo and South Pole stations in Antarctica. From there he flew to remote locations to work, collecting data on climate change research that was sent back to the University of Wisconsin.
The program is highly competitive, but Penn’s extensive outdoor training — he is a former Army Ranger, not to mention a Boy Scout — and 27-plus years of teaching, made him an ideal candidate.
The trip was funded by the National Science Foundation.
The oldest (by almost 20 years) of his five-person team, Penn worked in some of the world’s harshest conditions. Their mission was to install and maintain 12-foot automatic weather stations equipped with GPS to monitor glacier movement and meteorological instruments to measure weather.
“We installed close to a dozen stations, in temperatures that set records at negative 128 degrees,” Penn said. “We went to areas of the South Pole that had never been explored.”
Interactive lessons occurred during his expedition. Penn facilitated a live report from the South Pole with more than 30 schools from seven countries. He posted about 30 online journals on his research.
Penn endured a three-day quarantine at the start of his trip, complete with psychological tests and briefings on how to deal with sensory deprivation (there is little sound or smell in Antarctica) before embarking on his adventure. He was issued extreme cold weather gear, including two coats he nicknamed “Lil and Big Red.”
He spoke of snowstorm white-outs causing zero visibility. That’s when colored ropes come in handy.
“We had colored ropes connecting buildings, and during whiteouts you can hold onto the rope and guide your way to a building,” Penn told the students. “Otherwise a person could get lost out there.”
His encounters with animals caught the students’ attention, especially the rotund seals that dot the stark, white landscape like specks of pepper. Penguins were a common sight, too.
“The students commented they were surprised to learn that the seals had no reaction to humans there,” Leechburg teacher Nicole Bauer said. “After his presentation, several students commented on how cool science was. And we all agreed it would be incredible to walk around the bottom of the world.”
Penn described his trip as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He said he didn’t have any life-threatening encounters, but he sometimes had an unsettling feeling.
“I think being left out with our team 500 miles from the next human or living thing in any direction was probably the most scary or serious moment,” Penn said.
Bauer scheduled Penn as a guest speaker as a real-life connection after her class participated in an online virtual field trip to Antarctica via the Nearpod website.
“I wanted my students to connect what they read to a real person’s experience,” Bauer said.
“Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent,” Penn said. “There are wind speeds up to 300 mph.”
Spending time at the bottom of the world had its perks.
Penn enjoyed running “a race around the world” when he hiked a 2.1-mile circle around the South Pole that took him through all 24 time zones.
“You can step from today into tomorrow, and from yesterday back into today,” Penn said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Even air travel to remote work locations requires donning extreme weather gear, including goggles, Penn said.
“If the plane crashed, there was no way a survivor could try to look for their coat or something,” he said. “You would freeze to death that fast.”
Student questions covered topics such a hygiene and food.
Going to the bathroom at minus 70 degrees is no easy task, because the skin can’t ever be exposed to the elements.
Showers were once a week, for two minutes, with cold water.
His beard and mustache were in an almost constant frozen state.
“Once I forgot and messed with my frozen mustache and it broke (the hairs) right off,” Penn said.
No fresh food was available because they would have frozen.
For Penn, sharing his experience in person with students has been rewarding.
“They would never be as excited about some of the things we just talked about unless they had met someone who actually did it,” Penn said.
When asked what he did immediately upon his return to the United States, Penn spoke of food.
“I had a cheeseburger,” he said.
Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.