Not many people can say they have made S’Mores at the South Pole. With the help of a solar oven made by some of her physics students, Katey Shirey did just that in November.
As part of a teaching fellowship with the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF), Shirey (Col ’04, Grad ’07) traveled to Antarctica to participate in the University of Wisconsin’s IceCube Project to study neutrinos. Not only was she able to take part in the creation of the world’s largest neutrino observatory, but she also was able to share the experience with others, including her physics students at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va.
The solar ovens were a planned experiment, and Shirey told her class she would take the best one with her to the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. They suggested other activities that weren’t as scientific but were a little adventurous, such as going outside without her jacket.
“It was OK—for a couple seconds,” Shirey says. The weather, as expected, could get brutal. One day in December, the wind chill factor dropped to -40 degrees F.
Although Internet connectivity was limited to six hours a day, Shirey found time to bring a little bit of Antarctica to her students, through writing on her blog and taking photos and videos, and uploading them from her station room.
In addition to the educational aspect, Shirey was there to help install photo-collectors to research neutrinos, particles so small they pass through our body without notice. Over the last 10 years the IceCube Project has put more than 5,000 photo-collectors under the ice; they will collect data for the next 20 or more years.
“The neutrino is small, moves fast and has no charge, so we cannot detect it,” says Shirey. “We have to wait until it hits something.”
The collision cannot be detected either, so the photo-collectors capture information after the collision because the particle produced from the collision (muon) makes light when it moves through the ice. Over the course of years of research, scientists hope not only to learn more about neutrinos but also better understand dark energy and dark matter (the latter constitutes 23 percent of the matter of the universe).
This month, Shirey heads to Madison, Wisc., to celebrate the completion of the construction and reunite with the scientists she met in Antarctica.
“I was so surprised how friendly everyone was there,” says Shirey. “Many of them return year after year and are close like brothers and sisters.”
As part of the celebration ceremony in Wisconsin, Shirey was asked to create a modern art piece, reflecting the isolation of the South Pole station. In this way, she was able to combine all her interests with this project — physics, teaching and art.
Shirey graduated with degrees in physics and studio art as well as a master’s in teaching from the Curry School of Education. She became a KSTF fellow in 2006.
“My mom says that when I was a kid I used to tell people all the time I wanted to be a teacher,” says Shirey.
Although she was creating art from an early age, her love of physics came a little later, when she was a student at Yorktown High School in Arlington.
“When I took physics in high school I felt like suddenly someone was answering all the questions that I had,” says Shirey. Questions like ‘Why are there rainbows when it rains?’ or ‘Why are there rainbows when it doesn’t rain?’”
Now, she’s returning the favor to her own students.
“When they start to make the connections,” says Shirey, “then they know how physics relates to their lives and I see them becoming little physicists. That makes me happy.”