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Students get glimpse of Antarctica expedition

February 4, 2019

GRAFTON, Mass. (AP) — It was colder in many parts of the United States last week than it was in Antarctica.

For middle school students at Touchstone Community School in Grafton, the weather wasn’t the only thing that made them feel like they were in the polar region.

The students are participating in weekly video conferences with science and marine exploration crews on the Weddell Sea Expedition, aboard the S.A. Agulhas II, a large polar research vessel.

“Imagine yourself on a boat with a bunch of ice. You’d basically be where we are,” Channing Thomas, team leader for the crew of the autonomous underwater vehicle, told the students from the ship’s operations room.

The interactive connection with a real-world expedition is a program offered through a nonprofit global education organization, Reach the World, based in New York City. Antarctic traveler Holly Ewart fields questions from students and educators from around the globe during the 45-day expedition and the classrooms access field notes, journals and the ship logbook using resources from Reach the World.

Operation teams on the ship come from Ocean Infinity, a Texas-based seabed exploration company, and Deep Ocean Search, a seabed survey and project management company based in Mauritius.

The goals of the Weddell Sea Expedition, which began Jan. 2, are to investigate the ice shelves around the Weddell Sea and, in particular, the Larsen C Ice Shelf, from which a giant iceberg broke off in July 2017; to document the rich and little-studied marine life of the western Weddell Sea ecosystem; and to attempt to locate and survey the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, which was trapped and crushed by the ice and sank in the Weddell Sea in 1915.

Shackleton’s expedition, in which all the men ultimately survived and were rescued many months later, is considered a model of leadership and resilience.

On Thursday, students were excited because the expedition was shifting from its scientific research focus to hunting for the wreck of the Endurance.

But first the crew had to head to King George Island, 75 miles off the coast of Antarctica, to pick up more supplies.

“It’s a very unforgiving environment,” said Ms. Ewart, on board the ship.

When the expedition arrives near the believed location of the shipwreck, recorded in navigational coordinates by Shackleton as it sank Nov. 21, 1915, it will build two 35-hour in-depth missions and two 10-hour “point of interest” missions to explore.

For the first time, free-swimming AUVs, described by Mr. Thomas as “remote control submarines,” will be deployed under the ice to scan the ocean floor. The AUVs can travel 120 miles away from the ship and return with images and survey data, scanned using sound waves.

Mr. Thomas said the Endurance lies 3,000 meters, or about 32 football fields, below the surface. The pressure there is “like a car balancing on your head.”

He displayed on the screen examples of scanned shipwreck survey images from other sites, to show what the data might look like if they find it.

Touchstone student Lil Runyan, 14, asked the crew what they hoped to find on the ship, and whether they would be able to retrieve any of the pictures taken by ship’s photographer, Frank Hurley, which may have gone down with the ship.

Mr. Thomas said researchers aren’t allowed to touch the shipwreck. But if they find it, they hope to take pictures and create a three-dimensional model.

Throughout the video conferences over the course of the expedition, students interact with a range of crew members, from glaciologists, marine biologists, oceanographers and marine archaeologists, to cooks and janitors.

Touchstone middle school teacher Katy Inman said, “It’s a good model because they’re seeing the actual jobs.”

Students will build on the experience in their spring thematic project focusing on Massachusetts ocean exploration. Each student will take a role and conduct scientific research appropriate to their field, and will weave the science into a creative narrative that the class produces.

Before the class joined the expedition in January, they wrote out questions on sticky notes, which they posted on a classroom cupboard door.

Some focused on science: How do the AUVs store power? Is this considered habitat destruction? Are there any dangers you face due to climate change? Are you hoping to find any macro/micro organisms?

Many questions were practical: What do you eat in Antarctica? Can you feel the cold with all the gear? Do the language differences (among crew members) affect your work? What’s your daily schedule?

And several concerned penguins: Do you play with penguins? Are you friends with penguins?

Their questions are being answered.

Penguins and seals abound, and one female crew member “got attacked” by penguins, the crew reported.

Charlie Goodchild, 13, said he was most interested by “how thick the ice is: over a mile thick. And they’ve already discovered new species.”

“It’s wicked cool because there’s so much of it and it’s so thick,” agreed Wyatt Iantosca, 13, about the ice.

Rowan Paulman also wanted to know if they’d find any new animals, “and if the ship will be intact.”

Self-described history nut Luc Brackett, 14, said he wanted to know why Shackleton was called to proceed with his expedition despite the outbreak of World War I in August 1914.

Several students said the whole concept of the research expedition was interesting, particularly, as Jared Karsina, 13, said, “being able to communicate back instantly from the bottom of the Earth.”

“Before, I thought Antarctica was a big sheet of ice,” said Case Welch, 14. “I’m really excited to see what it holds.”

Live-streamed lessons have come a long way since Christa McAuliffe, a Concord, New Hampshire, high school social studies teacher, who grew up in Framingham, was launched on the fateful Challenger space shuttle as the country’s first Teacher in Space, in January 1986. The Challenger’s midair explosion left unpresented the two lessons Ms. McAuliffe planned to teach from afar.

Lizzie Rosenberger, program manager with Reach the World, said in an email that teachers can still join the expedition. The program is fully funded by the Flotilla Foundation, so there is no cost for teachers to join with their classrooms. The expedition is scheduled to end on Feb. 22. Interested teachers can go to http://explore.reachtheworld.org/ and send an email to lizzie@reachtheworld.org to sign up.

The mission can also be followed on social media.

For the Weddell Sea Expedition, Reach the World is working in partnership with The Explorers Club to bring the expedition to classes across North America. The Royal Geographic Society is providing resources for teachers to use in their classrooms. There are more than 225 classrooms following along with the expedition from grades K-12.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2GnyxFq

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Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com

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