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Carbondale teacher endures "ultimate laboratory’

Kara Williams/Special to the Daily

Wind gusts up to 90 miles an hour. Twenty-four-hour daylight. Sleeping in a plywood fish hut and using an outhouse in frigid temperatures.

These are only a handful of experiences that Yampah Mountain High School teacher Susy Ellison endured – and enjoyed – while she studied seal populations in Antarctica from the beginning of October to mid-December.

Ellison is now “off the ice” and vacationing in New Zealand before returning to her Carbondale home at the end of the month.

A science teacher with a background in wildlife biology, Ellison kept a detailed online journal and crafted daily haikus about her adventures with the Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic program, supported by the National Science Foundation and facilitated by Rice University.

In Antarctica, she worked alongside professors from Montana State University and five other science teachers from around the country. The team tagged seal pups, replaced broken tags, photographed seals and even weighed some of the mammoth creatures, which weigh up to 1,000 pounds.

Calling Antarctica the “ultimate laboratory; a place to examine life under the harshest of conditions,” Ellison said her experience represented a “lifetime of fascination with Arctic and Antarctic environments.”

Ellison lived in a cluster of four plywood fish huts five hours of travel from the main McMurdo Station base camp. She endured extreme weather, including wind-chill temperatures of 58-below zero.

Her typical outdoor clothing consisted of three pairs of long underwear, two pairs of socks, wind pants, fleece vest, down parka, hat, neck gator, goggles and gloves.

Ellison kept in frequent touch with Yampah Mountain High School principal Tom Heald.

“She did an amazing job documenting her experience,” he said of Ellison’s online journal, which included digital photographs. “She spent a lot of time responding to e-mails, and even reached out to me by phone at home and at the office.”

Yampah Mountain students followed Ellison via “live feeds” through the Internet. Students talked with her by speaker phone and followed her Web-based PowerPoint presentations. Some students received credit for tracking her project.

The school also reviewed Ellison’s online journal entries every Monday during school-wide meetings and crafted haikus to e-mail back to her.

“Susy seemingly didn’t sleep,” said Heald. “What came across in my conversations and e-mails with her was that her curiosity was insatiable. She was always using cross-country skis or some other backcountry apparatus to go exploring. She even found the wastewater collection fascinating.”

According to her journal, a highlight for Ellison was learning how to ride a snowmobile. Despite more than 20 years of living in Colorado and Utah, she hadn’t driven one before.

Because so few teachers and students have the opportunity to visit the Antarctic, Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic participants are expected to share their experiences with other educators within and outside their school districts.

Ellison will return to a regular teaching schedule at Yampah Mountain High School Jan. 5, but will also develop specific classroom activities and materials based on her research and attend conferences to share her polar knowledge with others.

In Elllison’s final journal entry, she posted some “take-home lessons” that she learned from her time in Antarctica, including “the importance of opening yourself to new experiences and the sometimes painful learning curve that may involve.”

Grateful for the time she spent on the other side of the world, she continued, “We are rarely given opportunities to step away from our “usual’ lives and try something new.”

Ellison’s final haiku:

What have I learned here

Never stop asking questions

Mysteries abound.

To read more about Ellison’s Antarctic adventure, visit http://tea.rice.edu/.


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