Saturday, February 17, 2007

My Dear Students: I Know How You Feel

So you arrive, early in the morning. You're a little grumpy because you're tired. Even though you may not show it, you are quite willing to do whatever is asked.

"Please take out your pencil."

You reach for the pocket where you keep your pencil. It's your pencil pocket and that's where you keep it. Really, ALWAYS.

It's not there.

You know you only have 30 seconds to produce a pencil and your pocket is empty.

You ask your partner, "Do you have a pencil?"

He'd give you one if he had an extra. He doesn't.

You ask the guy on the other side of you, "Do you have a pencil?" Nothing.

Behind? Same story.

Time is running out. Pens aren't allowed, but they'll do in a pinch. You know having a pen is better than nothing. You check your pen pocket. You've got one stashed for later in the day. Luck! It's there. Hopefully your teacher won't notice you're using pen instead of pencil, and you feel grateful that at least you didn't have to ask her to bail you out.


We were a bit tired and grumpy on the way out to the upland spruce forest. It was minus 40 C and colder due to the chill from gusts of wind. Pete, our team leader, had chosen the forest because the trees would shelter us from the winds of the coming blizzard.

The shelter comes at a cost however. The trees catch the snow blown in from the tundra around and they don't let any that falls in place go, even when the winds reach 70 kilometers per hour, like they had all night. So the snow is deep, which means digging all the way to the ground took a while. The crystals were large light and fragile, so we had to work delicately so as not to disturb our pit's wall of snow with its distict layers.

Once the pit is dug at each site, for every layer we measure depth. And record it with a pencil. We measure the size of the crystals. And record it with a pencil. We measure each layer's density. And record it with a pencil. For each layer, we measure hardness and temperature and record the figures, with a pencil. It amounts to more than 300 numbers to be carefully recorded for entry later into the team's data base.

We had reached the bottom and climbed in. Alan, our layers expert had identified the six layers in this pit, all with their own quality and size of snow crystal. Each layer had its own density, hardness, temperature and depth. I was sorting out our equipment and Kate pulled out the clipboard to start recording the first numbers. Pete had instructed us to record only in pencil, because pen smears.

Our pencil has its place. The clipboard has a string, and the pencil is tied around the string. The pencil is not there.

At the same time all three of us remember Alan borrowing the pencil the night before. He says, "It's my fault." Kate says, "I should have checked." I say nothing, and instinctively reach for my ear where I keep a pencil. Of course it's not there. The metal would freeze to my skin and it would get all tangled up in my balaclava, my hat and my scarf.

The three of us look around. If we don't find a pencil, we'll hold up the whole group in the freezing cold while the blizzard approaches while we do our job with someone's else's pencil which we can't borrow until after they finish. We ask the group to the right of us. They'd give us a pencil if they had one. They don't. Behind? Nothing. We ask the group to the left of us. "Do you have a pencil?" We're in luck. Deeter has one. It’s a beautiful mechanical pencil, refillable with a nice thick shaft that maybe we can grip even with our mitts on. Kate starts writing. Dang! The lead breaks and there’s no more inside even after I take off my mittens and dismantle it looking for a lost bit of lead.

Then Alan starts digging, deep. He thinks he'd got a pen in his bag somewhere.

We’re not to use pen.

“Pen smears,” Pete said when he trained us.

This is science and you can’t do smeared science. At this point a pen is better than nothing. He finds one. But does a pen work at - 40 C? No way no how. We can see the little scratches and circles on the corner of the paper, but no ink.

Then I start digging. I've got a little hot pack in my pocket that I had stashed that morning to keep my poor hands from freezing whenever they weren't going to freeze anyway due to being outside of my mitts in order to be able to work the equipment. Kate wraps the pack around our pen and puts the end of it in her mouth. The ink starts flowing, mostly. And we proceed.

We record our more than 300 measures from this pit and the next one. As before, we finished last, but thanks to help, we weren’t far behind the others. And we beat the blizzard.

All morning that poor pen worked off and on, so that when it came to entering data -- all three hundred plus individual measurements for each of our two pits -- we had to read some of them by feeling the back of the page for the indent we'd made in our attempt to write.

Note to self: next time you travel to the Arctic to collect data on everything there is to know about snow, grab a handful of stubby golf pencils. They travel light and they'll do in a pinch.

1 comment:

Kim said...

Hi Jana, isn't it interesting how the "little things" get in the way? Your pencil comments fit right in to my lessons yesterday as I introduced note taking and using science journals.... my 9th graders have a hard time with writing only in pencil. Thanks for the insights and thoughts! What are the accomodations like for scientists in the field?