On November 6, 2005, Erin Kirchmer, a science teacher at Morristown High School's Health and Medical Science Academy, and four other science specialists boarded a plane--and then a boat--for a 16-day expedition to Antarctica. For Erin, the adventure is what she calls "the peak" of the third of three major studies she has conducted with a group of her high school science students enrolled in a Research Science I lab class. It is also the realization of Erin's personal dream--to visit all seven continents before she gets married.
Erin, who earned her teaching degree from Elizabethtown College and arrived in her current position in the fall of 2003, is in charge of curricular enhancements at the Health and Medical Science Academy, a school within Morristown High that gives students an intensive four-year dose of math and science. What better way to enhance the existing curriculum than by bringing real-world research into the classroom. What better person than Erin, a world traveler who has been to France, Australia, Italy, Germany, Ireland, South America, 42 of the U.S. states and the list goes on and on.
The first of Erin's "hands-on" academic research projects with her high school students began in the summer of 2004, when she visited Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. She applied her African hiking adventure in the classroom by designing three biological studies, one on heart rate, one on fatigue and one on mental acuity. Her expedition team's results were then woven into the curriculum at the Morristown High academy. For example, they were added to the English class curriculum while the students were reading "Into Thin Air," a personal account of a Mt. Everest expedition written by Jon Krakauer.
While visiting Thailand for three weeks this summer, Erin applied a research study on how animal habitat is affected by urban development and natural disasters that she had prepared during the school year with her Morristown High students. And now she is off to Antarctica, admittedly the trickiest of continents to visit, which required her to take a chunk of time off during the fall semester. But it's fair to call it a working adventure. Since September, Erin and her students have been preparing a study called "Retracing the Steps of Sir Ernest Shackleton," the explorer who crossed Antarctica in the early 20th century. "It's a cross-collaboration between teacher and student research in order to gain a better perspective in four areas regarding Shackleton and Antarctica," says Erin. These include the life of Sir Ernest Shackleton; the historic journeys that led us as a global set of people to understand Antarctica and want to know more about it; Antarctica as a continent, its environmental conditions and the like; and the animal life of Antarctica.
Upon her return, Erin will share her results with her students, none of whom are accompanying her on the journey, and continue the Antarctica analysis through June of 2006. "The course is allowing students to design, implement and carry out their own personal scientific investigation," says Erin, who has won grants and sponsorships from companies and private donors to help pay for her continental research. "The kids just love this." And so does she.
"My parents and grandparents brought me up in a family that believes in pursuing personal dreams," says Erin, who turns 27 at the end of November. "It's not enough just to have them, you have to follow through on them."