Like most Northeast Ohioans thawing out from a brutal winter, Jim Miller is already making plans for summer: the beaches, the ice cream, the frigid Arctic waters while digging through permafrost.
That’s right. Miller, a science teacher at , will forgo his summer vacation to spend two months researching microbial activity in the waters near Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the state and one of the northernmost cities in the world. He said it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and he’s especially excited to share his experience with students.
“To bring it back to the classroom — I think especially kids are so sheltered these days, and it’s very hard for them to even imagine what Alaska’s like and the things that are going on out there,” he said.
Miller, who is also a swim coach at Heights High, was one of 12 teachers out of 250 applicants from all across the country chosen by the National Science Foundation to work alongside scientists from Cornell, San Diego State and Stanford universities. The teachers will conduct research in the arctic and Antarctic regions as part of PolarTREC, a program that sends educators to study in the field so they can share their experiences with their students and the community when they return.
He’ll research at several field sites at the Barrow Environmental Observatory, located near Barrow, which has a population of about 4,500 people. Most are Inupiat, indigenous people to the area. The town is accessible only by airplane.
Temperatures stay mostly below freezing for much of the year, but when Miller visits from the beginning of June to mid-August, he said temperatures will fluctuate between 30 and 60 degrees, although there’s nothing to block the wind coming off the water. While he’s used to cold weather, one thing he will have to get accustomed to is the 24 hours of daylight that will remain until the beginning of August, a result of the city’s proximity to the Arctic Circle.
“I think that’s going to be an interesting transition,” he said. “I think that’s just going to be interesting because usually when you’re up and it’s light out you’re really wired, and if it doesn’t go down, how do you adjust your body to that?”
While there he’ll write daily entries in a research journal, take copious notes and shoot pictures and video, all of which he’ll bring back to share. He plans on not only creating lesson plans from the trip, but also making presentations to local colleges and scientific groups throughout the area.
Much of his work will have him knee-deep in frigid waters, called thaw lakes, collecting samples of the bacteria and other microorganisms that live there. Thaw lakes form on the top of a thick layer of permafrost underneath the northern arctic coast, and when the organic material decomposes it produces methane, a greenhouse gas that may affect the atmosphere due to its release.
The trip is a dream for many science teachers, evident by the hundreds who applied, and required multiple applications and interviews where Miller had to explain how he was going to use his experience for educational purposes. This was his third consecutive year applying for the slot, and last year he made it into the top 50 finalists.
Brian Schaner, another science teacher at the high school who was assigned as Miller’s mentor when he first got hired and showed him the ropes, said Miller was perfect to get the opportunity.
“Not only does he know his science, he's very active in field trips and things like that with his own students,” he said. “This kind of fits the mold with that, stretching the horizons with his students.”
He said Miller often uses his connections in the scientific world to gain access to place like The Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory for his students to do ecologically-related studies along the Lake Erie shoreline.
Miller is already a seasoned traveler, having gone on research assignments as part of his master’s degree program from Miami University of Ohio to Costa Rica and Belize in Central America and Namibia in southern Africa. He gained even more experience in February when he went to Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of a workshop preparing him for the summer trip.
Joe Nohra, principal of , the small school at Heights High where Miller teaches, said he’s excited to hear what Miller plans to present to his students in the fall about his experience.
“We're very excited about Jim's progress with this," he said. "It was like winning a game show."