Students talk to pen pal to learn about Antarctica

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

SALINA, Kan. -- It's a land of pupil-sized penguins and pizza.

Volcanoes, dinosaur fossils and ice stretching to the horizon.

And an annual concert known as "Icestock," which includes the world's southernmost chili cook-off.

You won't learn everything about Antarctica from the textbooks.

So for the past several weeks, fifth-graders at Oakdale Elementary have been getting eyewitness accounts of life in Antarctica from John Deaton, an elementary schoolteacher from California who's living at McMurdo Station.

They recently got to talk to him, with science teacher Sara Praytor handling a slideshow of photos Deaton had sent. Besides the fifth-graders, Praytor invited a handful of fourth-grade students who had shown an interest in the subject.

Deaton spent quite a bit of time explaining life on the frozen continent, including how hard people work to keep it pristine.

One photo showed a seal lounging in an access hole divers had cut into the ice for exploring the ocean underneath.

International treaty prohibits people from pestering wildlife, Deaton said.

"We're all just standing around with our heavy, bulky dive equipment, waiting for the seal to end his nap," Deaton said.

Other photos included a helicopter, and a scientist out on the ice sheet with several penguins in the background.

Penguins, Deaton said, "are not afraid of people -- they'll walk right up and look at you. Once they've satisfied their curiosity, they'll waddle off and find something else to do."

He also showed a field camp, just a small cluster of tents in the snow, where scientists will stay for days, weeks, or even months, working on specific projects, such as excavating dinosaur remains.

One of several collective "wooos" from the students came when Deaton described dinosaurs similar to T. Rex, and also that scientists had found fossils indicating the entire area had once been covered by forests.

Students got a sense of the isolation with a picture of the icebreaker ship "Polar Star." It can break ice up to six feet thick without stopping, and can back-and-ram through up to 21 feet.

Once a year, it cuts a path through the ice to McMurdo, allowing a cargo ship and a fuel ship to resupply the American station there.

But scientific discoveries there could have an effect on people. One example Deaton gave was scientists studying a protein in the blood of some animals there that keeps them from freezing solid in temperatures way below bone-shattering. Figuring out how it works, he said, could lead to ways to preserve human organs for transplants.

When it came time for questions, students wanted mostly to know about the details of life.

Deaton said the menu is pretty normal, with pizza, spaghetti and steak fairly common, and eggs, bacon and pancakes for breakfast.

"It's all good food, but I miss home cooking," he said.

Fifth-grader Kiefer Lawson asked Deaton if he'd ever been attacked by a wild animal.

He started to say no, but then told of the skua, a sea gull-like bird that lives in the area.

"If you leave a building holding a candy bar, or a plate of food, they'll attack you to get it," he said. When it happens to others, "It's actually pretty entertaining to watch."

"We're not supposed to feed them on purpose," he said. "But we also can't bother them or shoo them away."

There's also lots for people to do in their spare time, Deaton said.

Many of the scientists are accomplished musicians and form quite a few bands to play at "Icestock" each year. There are also numerous classes, ranging from aerobics to welding, two TV channels showing movies 24 hours a day and a video library.

The long Antarctic summer is drawing to a close, Deaton said. "We had our first sunset on Feb. 22. From October 21 to Feb. 21, the sun was up 24 hours a day."

A week ago, Deaton and the bulk of the others at McMurdo flew to New Zealand before heading for home.

"It was very cool," Lawson said afterward in the hall. "We've been learning about it anyway, but this was cool."

"It was very educational," said fifth-grader Savanah Bolby. She pointed to a bulletin board, where she and other students had assembled facts and photos about Antarctica. "We've learned a lot."

Praytor and Deaton originally hooked up through a mutual friend, Bill Sunde of Abilene.

Sunde was working as a bus driver in Antarctica -- he's coming home soon, too -- and Praytor wanted him to keep the kids updated on what he was doing. He suggested Deaton instead.

"When we were setting this up, I told him I wished we could pay for the call," Praytor said. "I told him he shouldn't have to pay for it."

But as it turned out, Praytor's mother had given Sunde a calling card as a going-away present, and it still had time left on it.

"He gave it to Mr. Deaton, and he used that to make the call."

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