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Harlem to Antarctica for Science, and Pupils

Resource type: News

The New York Times |


The pitch: Eight weeks in Antarctica. Groundbreaking research into the climate before the Ice Age. Glaciers. Volcanoes. Adorable penguins.

The details: Camping on the sea ice in unheated tents, in 20-below-zero temperatures. Blinding whiteouts. The bathroom? A toilet seat over a hole in the ice.

Stephen F. Pekar, a geology professor from Queens College, was selling Shakira Brown, a 29-year-old Harlem middle school science teacher, on his expedition.

Her response: I’m in.

Dr. Pekar had found just the person for his Antarctica team: a talented, intrepid African-American teacher to be a role model for minority science students.

I’m tired of having a bunch of white people running around doing science, said Dr. Pekar, who is white. When it comes to Antarctica, it isn’t just the landscape that’s white.

Dr. Pekar wants to get more American students, and particularly more minority students, excited about science. Many studies show teenagers across the United States lagging in math and science scores behind their peers in other industrialized countries.

These kids don’t have the role models, or the environment, that shows them what the possibilities are, he said. I want Shakira Brown’s students to be able to live this experience through her. I want them to be thinking like scientists – like lovers of life.

The trip is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which sends about 300 scientists to Antarctica each year. Tom Wagner, director of earth sciences for the program, estimates that perhaps three or four African-Americans have joined that research effort.

Relatively few African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians work in the earth sciences, Dr. Wagner said, adding that the foundation was working to bring greater diversity to the field.

Ms. Brown, Dr. Pekar and three of his students leave in October. They and 11 other team members will meet at McMurdo Station in Antarctica for survival training, including learning how to build an emergency igloo.

At Promise Academy, the charter school where Ms. Brown teaches, the students are bursting with questions. Will their teacher catch her own food? (No, but Dr. Pekar is bringing a chef.) What if Ms. Brown falls through the ice? (Unlikely, Dr. Pekar says, though their teacher will learn how to avoid cracks.) Will she see polar bears? (No, bears don’t live in Antarctica.)

Will her fiancé let her make the trip?

What do you mean, ‘Is he going to let me go?’ Ms. Brown has told her students. Of course he’s going to let me go. I’m independent. It’s the chance of a lifetime.

Eva Ramos, 13, who is in Ms. Brown’s eighth grade class, approves. Ms. Brown is a very smart woman, she said. The trip is going to be hard. But it’s for the good of science.

Dr. Pekar’s search for a teacher began at Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit organization that runs Promise Academy. Ms. Brown – who gets her students excited about science by having them look at cells under microscopes, ask lots of questions and dream up their own experiments instead of just memorizing facts for state standardized tests – was at the top of everyone’s list as the ideal Antarctica explorer-educator.

Ms. Brown makes science both understandable and cool, Eva said. When I was younger, I hated science, she said. The teachers talked too much. After they talk a lot, you get bored. Ms. Brown gives us examples from real life. When she teaches us something, I learn it in a snap.

Ms. Brown plans to teach her students – along with dozens of others through the Urban Science Corps, a NASA-affiliated, nationwide after-school program she is helping to develop – with lessons live from Antarctica, via video conferencing and blogging.

At Promise Academy, the Antarctica studies have already begun. On a recent outing to the American Museum of Natural History, Ms. Brown’s students got to touch penguin feathers. They were enthralled by Dr. Pekar’s slides of his last trip to Antarctica.

I want to get them to visualize it, to envision themselves there, Ms. Brown said in a recent interview. You hear about Antarctica in the fourth grade when they’re doing all the continents of the world, but it’s not a place you consider tangible. You can picture Virginia: Your grandmother lives in Virginia. But who lives in Antarctica?

Ms. Brown grew up in Irvington, N.J., just outside Newark, one of five children raised by a single mother who is a social worker. Sophomore biology at Irvington High School – and an inspiring teacher named Miss Jordan – hooked her on science. She went to Hofstra University intending to become a doctor.

But during a stint as a substitute teacher in a Newark middle school – she was working her way through college – she felt called to teaching, she said.

I prayed over it, and that’s where I was led, she said. When you pay attention to where you’re supposed to be, when you operate inside your gift, it just becomes easy. I found my gift; my gift found me.

I’m a young African-American teacher who came from a public school education, from an urban environment, she went on. My mom made less than $30,000 a year, and she raised me and four brothers. Now I’m in a position to empower all these people to have the same path that I was on.

She tells her students they should not be afraid to go anywhere – to Japan (where she went on a fellowship during college), or Africa, or India, or Antarctica. They ask me, ‘If they send you to the moon, will you go?’ she said. I say: ‘Absolutely. You have to go everywhere. Life is bigger than Harlem.’

Promise Academy, at 125th Street and Madison Avenue, is less than 20 blocks from Central Park, but Ms. Brown said many of her students had never felt comfortable in the park until a class trip last December. We looked at the lake, the different ecosystems, the different trees, the people walking their dogs, she said. They loved it.

Eva said she and her friends wished they could go to Antarctica with Ms. Brown. So we could find out about what the earth was like before, Eva said. They have this special tool where they go deep into the earth. (That would be a geophone, which Ms. Brown and the other researchers will use to do a kind of sonogram of the sea floor.)

Inspired by her teacher, Dominique Brabham, 14, recently applied for Girls On Ice, which sends teen-age girls to study glaciers in Washington State.

I always liked science, but it was on the back burner, said Dominique, who wants to be a doctor. The way she explains things to me, I get it so quickly, I can go back home, do research and have questions to ask her when I come back to school. It helps train my mind so that I can actually have a career in science.

The other day, Dominique was in the elevator with Ms. Brown after a class on the cell cycle.

I think I figured out a way to cure cancer, Dominique said softly. What if you develop a bacteria that can go in and fight the cells that won’t stop growing?

Good idea, Ms. Brown said. She proposed that they do some research to see where it might take them.


To see a tape of one of the teleconference classes, click here.

To read her blogs from Antarctica, click here.

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