"It's a macaroni and cheese penguin!" shouted little Jimmy Tarr, in response to a question from an Antarctic explorer who was speaking to the first grade at Eldersburg Elementary School Tuesday.
"No, it's not a macaroni penguin" (which really does exist, without the cheese), replied Maya Wheelock, a doctoral student in geology from Johns Hopkins University. "It's the biggest penguin. Who knows what kind that is?"
(The answer, by the way, is an emperor penguin.)
"We read the story of Mr. Popper's Penguins" in January, said Barbara Cohen, a first-grade teacher.
"Since the children were all interested in doing some research on Antarctica, and I had read in the paper [The Sun, Nov. 30, 1992] about Dr. Bruce Marsh, at Johns Hopkins, I called the university to talk to him."
"He was on sabbatical, but I got through to some of his graduate students, and Dr. Marsh wrote to us!" Ms. Cohen said.
"When they all went to Antarctica, we were looking at maps of the region, and talking about penguins and how they live, and we got letters from the graduate students.
"This was a big thrill to the kids, and when the researchers returned we invited them to come speak to us. Ms. Wheelock, who wrote to us from Antarctica, agreed to come when she got a lot of the work she had to do finished."
Members of the geological expedition had taken slides and rock samples with the children in mind, and Ms. Wheelock brought them along to show with her talk.
"The kids made a giant poster of Antarctica for Ms. Wheelock as a final project in our research activity," Ms. Cohen said. "The kids really went into this whole hog. They learned a lot about Antarctica and even more about how we go about doing research."
Tuesday, a little more than three months since the class read "Mr. Popper's Penguins" by Richard and Florence Atwater, the children were speaking with an Antarctic explorer in person and learning something about how professionals do research, too.
"We went first to New Zealand," Ms. Wheelock told the excited students. "There we collected the clothing and equipment we would need in order to survive in Antarctica, which is the coldest place on Earth.
"Then we flew to McMurdo Station, which is a scientific research station, where up to 1,200 people from all over the world stay to do research in Antarctica."
Showing slides of the fur-lined clothing, helicopter, penguins and Antarctic terrain, Ms. Wheelock delivered a soft-spoken lecture about her experiences in the Antarctic desert, where the usual miles-deep ice is replaced by barren rock.
"It was warmer than we thought it would be, because it was January, which is the summer on the bottom of the earth," she said. "It was actually colder for you here in Maryland in January than it was for us in Antarctica!"
One slide puzzled the students.
"Even in Antarctica we have to brush our teeth," Ms. Wheelock laughed. "That's what I'm doing there."
"We brought back roughly 1,000 pounds of rock to do more
research on," Ms. Wheelock told the children. "These rocks are 180 million years old, and were formed when the continents began to split apart. The rocks can tell us an awful lot about what the earth was like at that time."
She held up samples of basaltic rock (formed from lava), granite (which forms the "bedrock" of the continents) and ventifacts (rocks carved by blowing sand, similar to water-sculpted rock).
The children had lots of questions.
"Did anything surprise you?" A music festival and art show at the McMurdo Station were a surprise to the first-time Antarctic visitor.
"Did you like going on the trip?"
"Yes, I loved it. I'm going back next year," Ms. Wheelock replied.
"Did you see lots of penguins?"
"We saw a whole group of penguins who were just as interested in watching us as we were in watching them!"
As the talk concluded, the children got to touch the rocks that had been packed in bags in a large shipping box, grunting while lifting several of the larger ones.
Each got to pick a pebble-size Antarctic rock to take home as a souvenir. The children compared their rocks and clutched them protectively.
"It looks like two sides of a dolphin," said Nicole Cadle, holding a small black ventifact.
"The lava rocks were interesting," said Tracey Grimes. "I think this is one."
Ms. Wheelock, originally a mathematician, became interested in geology while working in the astronomy department of the University of Washington in Seattle, doing research on meteorites.
"I needed to learn about minerals, so I took some courses," she said. "Then I took my master's in geology at the University of New Mexico."
Now she is working on her doctoral thesis at the Hopkins, studying pods of granite that were somehow deposited in the basaltic rock found in the Antarctic.