By Kevin Sieff Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 10:37 PM
The stakes were high last week in Katey Shirey's 11th-grade physics class at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County. Students worked diligently, wrapping reflective Mylar around cardboard boxes as they thought through the physics of their creations: solar ovens.
The best oven would be shipped to the South Pole for scientific research next week. Specifically, directing the sun's rays to a frozen pizza bagel at Earth's southernmost point.
The researcher? None other than Ms. Shirey herself.
"I can't believe she's leaving for the South Pole next week," student Emma Banchoff said, frowning.
"But we get to tell everyone, 'That's our teacher on the South Pole,' " classmate Natally Montano said.
Shirey will spend a month working on an experiment investigating the production of cosmic rays and tiny, elusive particles known as neutrinos. It's an inquiry on the frontier of modern science - the kind of project that doesn't often invite 29-year-old high school teachers to participate.
But the University of Wisconsin experiment - called IceCube and hailed as the biggest research project ever conducted on Antarctica - isn't the average $271 million science experiment. And Shirey is far from the average high school science teacher.
Named a Knowles Science Teaching Fellow in 2006 before she became a full-time teacher, Shirey is equally passionate about conceptual physics and modern art - fields she connects by constructing plywood sculptures that illustrate the concept of harmonic motion.
In the classroom, she's at once hip and professorial, the kind of instructor students can consult about both the physical properties of alpha particles and the merits of microwave dinners.
"She's exactly what we had in mind when we created this fellowship," said Nicole Gillespie, associate director of the Knowles fellowship, a five-year professional development program aimed at creating a generation of leaders in the field of science education.
When she heads to the South Pole next week, Shirey will be the fifth high school teacher to participate in the IceCube experiment. The idea is simple: Recruit teachers who can share their experiences with hundreds of students and educators across the country, via lectures, blogs, conferences and informal conversations. Let them stay at a military base with scientists and research personnel, and give them enough time to perform experiments suggested by their students. Like microwaving a pizza bagel with the sun's rays, which shine 24 hours a day in Antarctica's summer. Or measuring the effects of the climate and altitude on their bodies and brains.
"We've made a commitment to get research out beyond people who traditionally experience it," said Jim Madsen, a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls who helps oversee IceCube. "Katey is a part of our effort to communicate to students that science is not just something you read in a textbook that happened 100 years ago."
It's an effort that seems to take a page from the Obama administration, which has long called for a reinvigoration of interest in scientific research in U.S. schools.
Shirey, a fourth-year teacher who says she "had a childhood interest in places that seem inaccessible," has been using her impending trip as a teaching tool for more than a year. It's provided entree to conversations about astrophysics and the standards of scientific research.
But much of her trip won't fit the image of cloistered, cerebral scientists at work. It will involve manual labor: She'll be placing tanks the size of hot tubs in deep trenches, all at 40 degrees below zero. Those tanks will be filled with ice and form a detector that will help scientists identify the origins of obscure, high-energy particles.
"I'm so excited for these students to understand that there are people not much older than them doing science around the world," Shirey said. "For most of them, science is dated. . . . With IceCube, they're starting to feel involved in something happening right now."