Dec. 5, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 7

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    Space Explorers student, teacher head for South Pole

    While some children fantasize about North Pole activity this time of year, one student in the University's Space Explorers program is preparing for the realities she will encounter on her trip to the opposite end of the globe -- the South Pole.

    Seventeen-year-old Jameene Banks, a senior at Hyde Park Career Academy in Woodlawn, will travel to the South Pole over the Christmas holiday with Arlene Sharp, a sixth-grade science teacher at John Foster Dulles elementary school in Woodlawn.

    "I don't know what to expect when I get to the Pole, but I know that I'll have a completely different outlook on a number of things -- the weather, for one," Banks said, laughing. "But also my education and my future. It will contribute to what I want to do."

    Their trip is sponsored by the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica -- a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center managed by the University. Banks and Sharp are participants in Space Explorers, CARA's science outreach program for high school students.

    "What we're trying to do by giving Jameene this opportunity is to get younger kids, especially African-American kids, to see that science is something they can do," said Larry Hawkins, Director of Special Programs, which oversees the Space Explorers program. "The goal is to get more kids to look at science as something that can be useful to them. And if it's a kid that they recognize, a sister or a friend, who is communicating with them, I think it sharpens the experience."

    Doyal Harper, Director of CARA, agreed. "The fact that Jameene is a senior in high school rather than a freshman in college means that her trip will have a broader impact on younger students back home," he said.

    Hawkins is arranging for Banks to speak at schools, churches and community groups when she returns in January.

    A first for all

    University scientists and engineers travel to the South Pole every year for astrophysics research -- the South Pole is one of the best places on Earth for astronomy -- but this is the first time ever that CARA has sponsored a student/teacher trip.

    One of the things Banks is looking forward to most is finally seeing the place she's been learning about for four years. Space Explorers learn about astronomy through remote use of CARA's telescopes at the South Pole and communicating with scientists who are working down on the ice. "I'm looking forward to seeing the projects in operation and actually seeing and interacting with people I've communicated with by e-mail," Banks said.

    Banks has been in the Space Explorers program since she was a high school freshman. She credits the University outreach program with helping her choose where to go to high school. A resident of the Pullman-Roseland area on the South Side, she had applied to several schools. "When I heard about the program at the University of Chicago, the best way to take advantage of it was to go to Hyde Park or Kenwood," said Banks, who ultimately chose the former. "Even though Hyde Park Career Academy is 100 percent African-American, there are kids from all over the city who have diverse cultural backgrounds."

    Currently applying to colleges, Banks said the University is her first choice. "I am very interested in law, particularly environmental or international law, but I also have a keen interest in physics. I'd like to find some way to combine those two interests, maybe represent NASA or the National Science Foundation," she said.

    In addition to academics, Banks plays varsity volleyball on a team that competed in the semifinals of the city tournament this year and spends time teaching elementary school students about astronomy using Adler Planetarium's portable Starlab. In conjunction with her trip, she will be giving presentations about astronomy in Antarctica, using a projection of the Antarctic night sky.

    "This kind of community outreach is very important to me," she said. "I use myself as an example for the younger students so that they will be confident enough to pursue what they want. I try to be a role model."

    Sharing the experience

    Sharp's sixth-grade science class at Dulles is eagerly anticipating "Miss Sharp's" trip to the Pole. Sitting quietly at attention during an Antarctic slide show, politely asking questions, the students erupted when Antarctic clothing was passed around. Gleefully trying on the 40 pounds of Antarctic gear provided to each Antarctic-bound traveler -- including a heavy down parka, "bunny" boots, fleece pants, and insulated mukluks -- they cavorted around the classroom and snapped photos of Sharp dressed for the ice.

    Sharp, in addition to teaching full time at Dulles, comes twice a week after school to the University and Adler Planetarium to work with high school students in the Space Explorers program. She also teaches astronomy to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at the University on Saturday mornings.

    Sharp plans to design lessons for her students on world geography, science and math, and she will videotape her journey.

    Banks and Sharp are scheduled to leave Chicago Dec. 16, traveling first to Christchurch, New Zealand, and after a short layover, by C-130 to McMurdo Station on the Antarctic coast. McMurdo is operated by the National Science Foundation as a base station for scientific research in Antarctica. From McMurdo, they will take a three-hour flight by ski-equipped C-130 over the Trans-Antarctic mountains to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. They are scheduled to be at the Pole for Christmas, arriving Dec. 21 and returning to McMurdo six days later.

    At the Pole they will work with University astronomers and engineers and will see CARA's southern base in operation.

    The rest of the Space Explorers, 30 students ranging in age from high school freshman to seniors, will be at Yerkes Observatory during part of the time that Banks and Sharp will be at the Pole and will have an opportunity to speak with their colleague and teacher via the Internet.

    The Space Explorers program is the result of a unique partnership between Chicago Public Schools, the University, Adler Planetarium and CARA. The program is designed to give students from Chicago Public Schools a greater understanding of and appreciation for science.

    Participants in the Space Explorers program extend their school day and academic experiences by attending classes after school and on Saturdays at the University. In weekly sessions, they study the stars while learning basic math, science and writing skills, working with faculty members and graduate-student volunteers. In addition, they spend 10 days each year at the University's Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., using the observatory's telescopes and conducting research projects. Experienced students in the Space Explorers program travel to elementary schools during the school year to teach astronomy to younger students using the Adler Planetarium's portable Starlab.

    Banks said she was initially taken aback by the rigor of the Space Explorers program. "At first I didn't like it at all," she said. "In elementary school, I was used to being able just to go to school and then go home. This program is designed to push students and motivate them, and it took me a while to get used to that. But I don't know where I would be right now without the program. I'd probably still be a good student, but I definitely wouldn't be going to the South Pole."

    -- Diana Steele