Educator Features

From Alaska to Antarctica
04.02.07
For most NASA Explorer School teachers, the "explorer" part of the title refers to using NASA resources to explore subjects like science and mathematics with their students.

Miller wearing a helmet in a helicopter
Allan Miller, however, took "explorer" a little more literally, when he joined an expedition to Antarctica.

Image to left: Miller departed the Oden via helicopter at the end of the expedition. Credit: NASA

Miller is a sixth-grade teacher at Sterling Elementary School, which is a part of a NASA Explorer School team consisting of schools on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. He is currently spending a year at the National Science Foundation's Office of International Science and Engineering through the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship.

In December, Miller participated in PolarTREC (short for Teachers & Researchers Exploring and Collaborating), a joint program between the National Science Foundation and the Swedish Polar Research Foundation. Miller was one of three teachers that took part in the Oden Expedition, named for the icebreaker vessel used for the trip. Plans are for the Oden Expedition to be the first of a series of trips that will carry teams of teachers and scientists to Antarctica.

"Once I arrived [at NSF], I immediately got to know the folks in Office of Polar Programs since we team with them for most of our Arctic and Antarctic research grants," Miller explained. "OPP contracted with Sweden this fall to use the Oden to break open the channel to McMurdo, and there was extra room on the vessel to take advantage of the opportunity for science and education. I literally happened to be walking through the office one day, stuck my head in to say hi to a friend and was asked if I'd be willing to join the expedition."

No stranger to the cold, Miller agreed. "I've taught in the Soviet Union, coached biathlon in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Canada, and taught for 20 years in Alaska -- that's about as much Arctic exposure as you can get!"

The Oden cuts through sea ice
Miller said it was an incredible experience to witness the experiments being performed during the trip by the international team of scientists, and to hear from the Swedish crew about their past exploration.

Image to right: During the expedition, the Oden carved a channel to McMurdo Station. Credit: NASA

"Without a doubt, the most interesting and stimulating part was being able to be part of science in action and work with experts eager to share their knowledge with me and students around the country," he said. "Coming in, I knew very little about Antarctic wildlife, sea ice, icebergs, the chemical and thermal characteristics of sea water, ship navigation, or the engineering of an icebreaker. But except for the few hours a day when I was sleeping, just about every activity and conversation was another lesson stretching my knowledge into another unexplored frontier. For this life-long learner, it was a dream come true -- especially when I've been able to take so much of it and pass it on to students around the country through the journals, pictures, teleconferences and visits.

"I think my greatest learning took place at McMurdo Station, when I was able to stand inside the 1902 Discovery Hut and experience first-hand just what life would have been like had I been Sir Robert Francis Scott or Ernest Shackleton," he said. "Since I was a boy, my heroes have always been the great explorers." Miller explained that was particularly true of space explorers, since he was named in honor of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and one of his earliest memories was watching the Apollo 11 moon landing with his father.

"But I've been equally inspired by the polar explorers; their journals and stories have been pivotal in drawing me to a life in the last frontier -- Alaska," he said. "I figured that, having lived at sixty below and trudged my own share of drifts and blizzards, I really had an understanding of what Scott meant when he wrote 'great God, this is an awful place.' But to see the rugged primitiveness of their shelter, ragged wool clothing still hanging to dry, slabs of penguin lining the walls, all amidst the barren rock and snow of Ross Island, made me realize that these men were cut from a far different cloth than I am and that passing winter here in total darkness and isolation was more challenging than I could ever have imagined. It has me rereading Shackleton's 'South' again with a totally new understanding.

A waddle of penguins on the ice
"And the lesson -- the power of experience as a teacher," he said. "I had read about Antarctica and seen pictures, but it was the experience -- the sights, smells and feelings -- that really gave me an understanding. It's a reminder I need occasionally as I seek to inspire the next generation -- that experiences are our most powerful teachers."

Image to left: Miller wrote about their arrival at the Antarctic ice in his journal: "We were met by a pack of penguins that seemed a bit shocked by our 100-foot-wide bow busting up their icy home!" Credit: NASA

Miller has shared his experiences with another NASA Explorer School -- Barrett Elementary School in Arlington, Va., located just blocks from his office at the National Science Foundation. Miller visited the school, sharing his stories and pictures with the students there, and even letting them try on his Antarctic gear.

A graduate of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Miller began his teaching career in the Alaskan village of Yakutat. In 1988, he spent a year teaching English in Rostov on the Don in the Soviet Union as a Reagan/Gorbachev Exchange Fellow. Returning to Alaska, he taught Russian and science and coached skiing and biathlon at Skyview High School on the Kenai Peninsula. By 1992, the school's Russian program was the largest in the nation.

Related Resources
+ NASA Explorer Schools

+ Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program

+ Allan Miller's Oden Journal

+ National Science Foundation

+ NASA Education Web Site

In 1998, he earned his master's degree in exercise physiology, and served as a coach for the U.S. Olympic biathlon team. He then returned to Kenai, where, during the past eight years, he has been a middle school science teacher and high school administrator. In 2003, Miller was chosen as a finalist in NASA's Educator Astronaut selection, and as a member of the NASA Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers. In addition to serving as the project leader for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District NASA Explorer School team, he also volunteers as a NASA Solar System Ambassador and with the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska.

Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowships are administered through the Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Energy. Through the project, selected teachers spend a school year working with federal agencies, including NASA. The goal of the project is to give educators a chance to provide practical insights and real-world perspectives to policy makers and program managers, and to give those teachers a new understanding of national education issues. Einstein Fellows receive a monthly stipend, as well as travel and moving expenses.

Through the NASA Explorer Schools project, NASA enters partnerships with selected schools to bring engaging mathematics, science, engineering and technology learning to educators, students and families. Competitive applications and selection of the NES teams occur each spring. Up to 50 teams will be added each year, for a maximum total of 150 teams. With this project, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's education. NES is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in STEM disciplines.

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services