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"Live" from the South Pole!


Author Janice VanCleave shares icy experiments -- and adventure! -- from the coldest place on the planet. Join her on a Web site set up just for this adventure!

Photo of the Author She's part scientist, part magician -- a teacher turned author who makes science exciting and accessible by using everyday materials to illustrate scientific principles.

She's Janice VanCleave, the best-selling author who admits to loving the showmanship of science, and she has just pulled a trick out of her hat worthy of "oohs," "ahhs" and intrigue: A trip of a lifetime to hawk her magical brand of science from the coldest place on the planet -- the South Pole.

VanCleave and Randy Landsberg, education coordinator for the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA) at the University of Chicago, will depart for southernmost continent, courtesy of the National Science Foundation, on Dec. 7, arriving at the Pole on Dec. 14. During their 7-day stay, the duo will conduct such experiments as determining the boiling point of water at one of Earth's highest and driest locations. In addition, they'll answer a host of questions submitted by students. The whole trip can be followed by the rest of the world via a Web site created for the occasion:

Getting from here to there won't be easy (that which is worthwhile rarely is!), and the trip itself has been months in the planning. Preparations have included visits to schools to talk about the upcoming odyssey, which teachers and students can participate in by submitting questions and ideas for experiments.

"I find that children just get big-eyed when I go to schools and talk to them about the South Pole," VanCleave said from her home in Texas. "Many times I'm entertaining them, but when I go and start to talk about Antarctica and the Pole, they are just fascinated and ask so many questions!"


Some of those questions, such as Can you blow soap bubbles at the South Pole?, have become the basis for experiments that will be conducted by VanCleave and Landsberg. The experiments will have varying degrees of difficulty to accommodate students from K-12, VanCleave said. Students and teachers following the trip are encouraged to do the same experiments at home or school and to post their results on the Web site.

The differences in locations will cause different results. The experiment determining the boiling point of water, for example, will result in one temperature in Chicago, and yet another in Denver, which is at a higher elevation, and still another at the Pole, where the boiling point will be affected not only by the increase in elevation, but by an atmosphere that is thinner due to the extreme cold.

The experiments will be the foundation of a new book by VanCleave, tentatively titled 203 Icy Experiments, scheduled for publication in 1999. Her previous works include the best-selling Science for Every Kid series and the Play and Find Out series. All of her books have been published by John Wiley & Sons Inc. (You can see a sample from Janice VanCleave's Weather this week on Education World's BOOKS IN EDUCATION page.)

The trip as a whole will be fodder for stories to tell her six grandchildren for yearsexperiment to come.


Just reaching the Pole will be an incredible -- and exhausting -- experience. VanCleave first has to make the trip from her home in Riesel, Texas, to Dallas, where she will fly to Denver and then on to Los Angeles. Then comes a flight to Auckland, New Zealand, where she will board a small plane for Christchurch, N.Z. Once there, VanCleave and Landsberg will spend a day getting their polar wardrobe together before hopping a military cargo plane for a cold, noisy flight to McMurdo Air Force Base on the coast of Antarctica.

"Once at McMurdo, hopefully the weather will cooperate so we can go on to the Pole. A lot of travel time may be tied up in weather," VanCleave said.

In Antarctica, "weather" takes on a whole new meaning. Even though it will be summer in the southern hemisphere (the first flowers will be blooming in Auckland, VanCleave points out), at the Pole the warmest it's likely to be is a frosty minus 20 degrees. It will also be daylight continuously, with a sun that neither rises nor sets, but appears to travel parallel to the horizon, making a full circle in each 24-hour period.

"I'm told the snow is so dry there it's like walking on a dirt road where the dirt flies up as you walk -- the snow just flies up in a mist of sparkling crystals as you walk along," VanCleave said.

"I'm looking forward to the excitement of standing at the end of the world, and telling kids that you don't fall off. And I want to see the physical pole that's stuck in the ground. When you stand there, you're able to see 10 meters away where the pole was last year.

"I'm still teasing myself, am I really going?"


The way the trip came about still seems unbelievable to VanCleave. Last April she attended the National Science Teachers Conference in New Orleans, where she was in the booth of her publisher. Landsberg came up to her booth and proposed that she go with him to the South Pole, where scientists from the University of Chicago and other institutions conduct experiments year-round. He called again two weeks later and asked if she was still interested. She was, and together they began preparing, working with a team of educators to devise appropriate experiments to share with an online audience.

Although the location will be exotic, the work is what VanCleave has been doing for more than four decades, beginning with 26 years as a teacher.

"What I do now [as an author] is what I did in the classroom," she said. "There was rarely an abundance of money for lab materials, so I would design my own experiments -- physics experiments that used boxes and rocks and ropes to demonstrate acceleration. Obviously at some point you need to [use] scientific equipment, but to introduce ideas using everyday materials allows students to relate science to the world they live in.

"I think the main thing is that you have to make science fun. Even with upper-level classes like chemistry and physics, if you do something really simple and basic to start out, students are immediately going to have the feeling that hey, this isn't so hard, I can do this. Those are the thoughts you want children to have: I can do this, this is easy, this is fun."

Having fun with science is also good public relations, VanCleave pointed out. When she was teaching, she once had her class construct a two-story straw, with one lucky student on the second story attempting to drink from a glass on the ground far below. After much huffing, puffing and sucking, he succeeded.

Parents who asked their children what they did in school that day likely didn't hear stock responses such as "Nothing" or "I don't know"!

Projects that students are eager to tell their families about "send home the message that kids are getting a good education," she added.

After returning from the Pole, VanCleave and Landsberg will visit schools, giving workshops on what they've learned at the coldest place on the planet.

"But on my own time," she said, "I'll be sharing this for a lifetime."


Be sure to check out Take A Virtual Trip to Antarctica this week on Education World's LESSON PLANNING page. That story includes links to Antarctica sites of interest to students of all ages and a dozen activities for use in the classroom. You can learn more about Janice VanCleave's books (and pick up an easy-to-do "frosty" experiment) by reading Spectacular Science at Your Fingertips! on this week's BOOKS IN EDUCATION page.

Article by Colleen Newquist
Education World®
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