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North Hills Monthly

How Do You Go to the Bathroom when it’s Windy and 70 Below?

Apr 30, 2019 11:03AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Michael Penn in Antarctica

A lot of teachers are willing to go the extra mile to try to make learning more interesting for students. In the case of Shaler Area Elementary School teacher Michael Penn, that effort took him more than 8,000 miles to the bottom of the world.

The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) teacher recently returned from Earth’s southernmost continent, Antarctica, where he spent five weeks working with PolarTREC (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating). One of five teachers in the United States to make the journey, Penn worked as part of a research team to install and maintain automatic weather stations across the continent. In addition to collecting information about weather conditions and measurements used by meteorologists and climate scientists all over the world, he also spent his time sharing his adventures with his students, and students from across the globe.

“The idea of this National Science Foundation-funded program is to get teachers to do something cool enough that kids listen to them and get excited about science,” explained Penn, who returned from his journey in December. “The kids followed me the whole time I was there, and I even got to talk to them from the South Pole.”

Penn chronicled his adventures through journals and video conferencing, showing students—and adults as well—what it was like to live and work in one of the most remote, forbidding regions on earth. 

“Obviously, the temperature is a big challenge, and since it’s daylight 24 hours and cold and windy, the tents are really loud—you don’t get a lot of sleep,” he explained. “It’s hard to eat because your food freezes when it’s 40 to 70 degrees below zero, and it’s hard to go to the bathroom in 

70 m.p.h. winds. 

“Of course, my fourth to sixth-graders were very interested in things like that,” he laughed. “That and penguins. They were all about the penguins.”

Penn’s students not only followed his progress in Antarctica but were involved from the very start. Penn had previously applied to the program but wasn’t accepted, so he had his students review his application. 

“They gave me suggestions on things to change and ways to make myself a better candidate,” said Penn. “This showed them that just because you fail at something the first time, you don’t give up. You just keep trying.”

Once Penn was accepted, it was a two-year process to prepare for the journey. He traveled to the University of Wisconsin twice to train with the research team and then traveled to Fairbanks, AK for further training. “I needed to get up to speed on the science and the equipment,” he explained. 

There were also stringent medical and physical hurdles that he had to pass to ensure that he was in good condition for the trip. “It’s very demanding physically to work on these weather stations; there’s a lot of digging for battery boxes and dragging sleds from helicopters to the sites,” he explained, adding that the South Pole Station, where the team was based, was located at 9,300 feet of altitude. “When you’re 3,800 miles from the nearest hospital, you want to make sure that there are no hidden medical problems.”

Though Penn is a self-proclaimed geek with a weather station in his classroom and another one at home, even he wasn’t prepared for the real-life experience of doing hands-on science in such a unique spot.

“It is so profoundly different from here; there are no smells because it’s all just ice,” he said. “I liked the challenge of it; the fact that there was a little bit of danger made it exciting. I got to go where no human had ever been—and flying around the continent on airplanes and helicopters—that’s just interesting stuff.”

Penn is especially pleased that he can share these experiences with his students and the world. He is currently doing outreach at different schools in the area, as well as speaking to other groups when asked. Those who want to learn more about his preparations and the expedition can visit

“The bottom line is that I wanted my students to see science as interesting and fun; not as drudgery,” he explained. “If your only experience is opening a textbook, you’re not going to get excited. Students following me started doing research on their own and learned about things that they might not have experienced in any other way.

“I think that it also shows them if you try really hard, you can accomplish your goals,” he added. “If I can get an average Pittsburgh schoolteacher on an Antarctic weather crew, imagine what they can do with the entire world in front of them. They can do anything they want.”