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A Dartmouth professor, a Hanover High School teacher and a Dartmouth undergraduate are teaming up to perform experiments in Antarctica during January as part of Teachers Experiencing Antarctica (TEA), a program organized by Rice University and funded by the National Science Foundation.
Professor of Environmental Studies Ross Virginia and Hanover High School biology and chemistry teacher Kevin Lavigne will travel to Antarctica together in January to perform research in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, one of the most extreme deserts in the world. Along with other scientists, they will spend two months conducting experiments and collecting data on the soil ecology of the valleys.
Dartmouth undergraduate Jason Strniste '03, an education minor, will work with Lavigne's high school students during his absence.
The TEA program offers K-12 teachers the opportunity to participate in original research without overburdening local school system budgets. The program's goal is to enhance elementary and secondary school science education.
The Dartmouth research team will focus its studies on nutrient cycling in the valley's soil. Because living organisms expel carbon dioxide through respiration, a change in carbon dioxide levels within the soil indicates the relative number and activity level of microbes and invertebrates living in this ecosystem, explained Jeb Barrett, a postdoctoral research associate who is traveling with the group.
The simplicity of the ecosystem in the McMurdo Dry Valleys makes it an ideal location for this type of research. These studies reveal not only the limit of life on Earth, but may indicate possible manifestations of life on other planets.
"Because it is one of the most extreme soil environments in the world, scientists often offer it as an analog to the surface of Mars," said Virginia.
The trip to Antarctica will not be the first for Virginia. The voyage marks the eighth segment of his ongoing research on the McMurdo Dry Valley. While in Antarctica, Virginia will continue to study the area's unique ecosystem, which, he says, is dominated by microorganisms and the occasional moss, and is virtually unable to support other higher life forms.
Lavigne's maiden voyage to the frozen continent will give him the opportunity to conduct his own research in addition to assisting Virginia. As part of the TEA program, Lavigne will use his research and findings to enrich his science classes both while he is in Antarctica and after he returns.
Prior to his departure, Lavigne's students at Hanover High School will design science experiments to be carried out on the ice. Together with Jeb Barrett and Katie Catapano '99 of the Antarctic team, Lavigne constructed projects that relate to the group's research for his students to complete during his absence.
Students have already conducted some of the labs, including one in which they tested carbon dioxide levels in soil from Antarctica, a desert grassland, and the Dartmouth Organic Farm. The goal of this exercise, according to Barrett, was to apply abstract fundamentals of titration chemistry to a real world example.
While on the ice, Lavigne will keep in close contact with his students through an electronic field journal and e-mail. Video-conferencing technology provided by the TEA program will allow the students to observe Lavigne carrying out his experiments live over the Internet. Because this audio and visual technology is interactive, students will be able to examine the data collected by their teacher and work with Lavigne in modifying their experiments if necessary.
Upon returning from Antarctica, Lavigne will provide a firsthand account of the continent's climate to his students, and his photographs, journals and collected data will document the course of experiments that Lavigne performed for his students while on the frozen continent.
This is not the first time that Lavigne has performed scientific research outside of the classroom. During summer vacations he has traveled to the rain forests in Costa Rica, helped at dinosaur digs in the Midwest and studied squid in Cape Cod, Mass.
Although Lavigne will only travel to Antarctica once with the program, the exercises he develops as a result of the experience can provide lasting material for his classes.
"Some of the labs, the ones that are more interesting and fun, he will probably keep as part of his coursework from year to year," Barrett said.
In addition to enhancing the learning experience for teachers and high school students, the TEA program is expanding to involve the Education Department at Dartmouth. During January and February, Strniste will work with a substitute teacher and Lavigne's students in conducting the experiments designed by the research team. Strniste also will work with Lavigne and his students upon his return to Hanover.
Upon returning to Hanover, Lavigne plans to work with his students in interpreting his collected data and in drawing conclusions based on their findings. He will also present his experiences and research at local and national workshops.
The program is cosponsored by Rice University, the American Museum of Natural History, the National Science Foundation and the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab.
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