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Teacher brings her PocketLab on adventure to the South Pole

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Submitted by PocketLab on Fri, 01/29/2016 - 00:39

If you’re on a six-week expedition to the South Pole you have to pack light. It’s a requirement. But if you’re also a high school physics teacher, you can’t resist the opportunity to do some classic experiments at the bottom of the Earth. So, Val Monticue brought a PocketLab.

Monticue teaches physics at Pinewood High School in Los Altos, Calif. In December she took a leave of absence to go on the adventure of a lifetime--a journey to the South Pole to help with  maintenance and repairs on Bicep3 (Background Imaging for Cosmic Radiation), a telescope that is investigating the birth of the universe, specifically, inflation theory.

While there, Monticue wanted to do experiments that would be interesting to her students back home. She brought a PocketLab because of its durability and versatility. “I like that it’s small and easily portable,” said Monticue. “There was a very strict weight limit that we could have coming and going, so it being small and lightweight while having so many sensors were both very convenient.”

Monticue performed a couple experiments with PocketLab. She investigated the strength of the magnetic field being so close to the magnetic pole and she looked at how quickly the temperature reading would change in the cold based on whether the silicon case was on or off.

“It showed a pretty perfect exponential [change] over time that probably would have matched Newton’s Law of Cooling quite well,” she said.

She also stress tested the PocketLab, noting that the battery and the bluetooth connection worked well in the cold.

You can read more about her work with Bicep3 in this IEEE Spectrum article. From the article:

(Monticue) helped disassemble the telescope, check for leaks in its vacuum jacket, and run tests of different types of refrigeration systems at the various tilt angles of the telescope. “I never got near the real innards,” she said. “People who had worked much longer with the telescope did that. But we were all improving the structure, adding sensors, deciding how to adjust things. It was a matter of fixing lots of little fiddly bits to improve the whole system.” She’s still waiting to hear whether or not the repair effort worked.

On her last day at the Pole, Monticue helped put the whole thing back together.

“The engineering was done, and it was ready for the science to happen,” she says. “Turns out throughout my career I’m always there for the engineering, but not the science.”

Monticue’s background in telescopes is what gave her such a unique opportunity. As an undergrad engineering student at Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont Calif., she researched how to build a telescope on a tower that could withstand the harsh winds of Antarctica.

From IEEE Spectrum:

She was proud of the work she did, designing a control system that could keep the telescope pointed precisely in spite of the challenging environment.

After graduating she found her way to education, and while she loves teaching she still stays involved in the engineering industry. During the summers of 2014 and 2015, through the Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education (IISME)fellowship program, she worked at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford University on the Bicep3. At the end of her time at Kavli, she was invited to go to the South Pole to continue working on the telescope.

Val at South Pole
Val on her Antarctic Adventure. Photo by Val Monticue


For other teachers looking to stay involved in industry, Monticue says IISME is a great program. “They take teachers and place them into industry or research positions for eight weeks during the summer,” Monticue said. “It’s a paid fellowship and an amazing experience for teachers.”

Monticue said her school was incredibly supportive of her during her absence. They even held a one hour all school assembly for her when she returned so she could talk about her experience. In her classroom, Monticue is now able to speak to the roles of science and engineering in research projects like Bicep3.

On her overall experience, Monticue said, “The science is pretty neat, but the people (on the project) and their stories and their adventurousness is incredibly inspiring.” She said many of those on the project, were not researchers, but support staff with a variety of backgrounds, including Mike the Plumber who responded to a Craigslist ad.

“Everyone there was on the same team and everyone wanted everyone else to succeed,” said Monticue. “My experience with the community was just as good as my experience working on the telescope.”

Monticue plans on continuing to use PocketLab in her classroom. Recently she used it to discuss circular motion with her students by swinging it above her head on a string.

“(It) gives a strong acceleration in a consistent (way) ‘along the length of the thing,’” said Monticue. “When students realize that that side is always pointed inward, it gives them a good visual for the direction of centripetal motion.”

PocketLab at South Pole