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Ocean Drilling Takes Teacher to New Depths

Hoover science teacher spends two weeks at sea.

The 470-foot research ship JOIDES Resolution spends its days and nights crossing the world's oceans, now and then stopping to drill into the ocean floor, pulling up core samples of the earth’s crust from depths of more than five miles.

Julie Marsteller spends most of her days at Herbert Hoover Middle School, where she teaches five periods of eighth-grade earth science each day.

When Marsteller heard she had a chance to spend two weeks on the ship, she didn’t blink.

“It was really just right up my alley,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-lifer. You’ve got to take the risk. You’ve got to go do it.”

MARSTELLER and 12 other educators from around the country joined the ship’s resident scientists and engineers for a collaborative expedition — dubbed the “School of Rock” — beginning Oct. 31.

While the journey from Victoria, British Columbia, to Acapulco, Mexico, is technically a repositioning run between individually designed and funded research missions for the ship, Marsteller didn’t sign up for a pleasure cruise.

The educators will operate the massive drill rig, assist resident scientists with their research, and develop classroom activities to bring back to their home schools for testing and eventual publication on the Web.

The program was designed and sponsored by the Joint Oceanographic Institutions, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit research organization that studies the Earth’s history — and future — through scientific undersea drilling. The organization is the U.S. arm of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, an international alliance including scientists from China and Japan, working under a $1.5 billion grant from the National Science Foundation and other organizations.

While the web of organizations governing the research may be abstruse, the objectives are not.

The core samples the ship takes are a window into the earth’s past. By sampling in different locations, scientists can identify patterns in global geology and climate — and even what kind of microscopic critters were in abundance at a given time.

Those insights shape our knowledge of global climate change and could help predict events like last year's tsunami in Asia or this year’s unusually active Atlantic hurricane season.

“We’re really studying things that are important to real people’s lives,” said Jon Corsiglia, communications associate for Joint Oceanographic Institutions.

The last expedition focused on pockets of frozen methane in the layers of earth beneath the sea. Sound too science-y? Here’s the rub: If harnessed correctly they could be a powerful source of energy. But methane is also a greenhouse gas 10 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“If something were to disturb those deposits ... We may be triggering a warming event that we can’t take back,” Corsiglia said.

THOSE KINDS of connections are exactly what Marsteller hopes she’ll be able to convey to her students.

“To have it be authentic like that just makes it awesome. I mean, I’m going to come in this room and have done this and taken the core samples,” she said.

The students will track Marsteller’s progress on a map while she’s at sea, and follow her activities in blog postings.

Marsteller was selected from more than 60 applicants to participate in the program. Then she had to arrange for leave time, substitute teachers to cover her classes, and family and babysitters to help take care of her two young children while she’s away.

Preparing for a Halloween party class period Friday, Marsteller said she still hadn’t packed for the trip.

“You need clothes to travel from the north pacific to Mexico. … But you can’t bring too much,” organizers had advised.

Convening her class, Marsteller said that the minor obstacles are well worth the opportunity.

“It’s an adventure,” she said. “Teaching — it can either be limiting, or it can be open to a million things. You really have to take the opportunities where they come. And for me this is the kind of opportunity that I thrive on.”