Peter Wasilewski has a Ph.D. in geology, is a NASA scientist who analyzed the original moon rocks, and is currently studying the Antarctic icecap. But what gives him most satisfaction these days is his creation of a non-profit corporation, Blue Ice, with a single mission: to make elementary-school children science-literate.
As an initial step to engaging young interest he is touring schools, returning flags the schools specially created for him to take on a scientific trip to Antarctica last winter. He asked the schools to design flags, and then flew them from his snowmobile.
His first major initiative through Blue Ice will be to organize national competitions in the United States and Japan to select two elementary schoolteachers to join his next polar mission in the winter of 1993/94. He has selected Japan because he has worked alongside Japanese scientists in Antarctica.
The mission has the scientific backing of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and he is seeking field support from the National Science Foundation's Department of Polar Programs.
The Howard County resident, a father of two, won the NASA/Greenbelt Community Service Award this year for his work with children.
Q: Tell me why you feel so strongly about making children science-literate.
A: I have always been interested in children learning. I thought it was fascinating. I found that I didn't like the way anything was done, ever since I was in grade school. I basically decided there is a lot of stuff wrong with this country. I either could be one of the nihilists and continue to criticize the system, I could leave the country and go somewhere else, or I could do the best I could to change things for the better.
I feel as children get excited about this, even a few in every school, you are going to find it's infectious. The teachers and parents are basically going to wonder what this is all about. When an accomplished scientist goes out of his way to do something special for children, that reaches the parents, the teachers. Some of them don't know what to make of it. It is absolutely mind-boggling because it has never happened before.
Q: How does Antarctica fit in?
A: Antarctica is a magnificent metaphor for almost everything, and being a land of superlatives it could be used in lots of ways to get things across to children. Antarctica and the science adventure is just a vehicle for reaching the children.
Antarctica is the coldest, it is the highest, it is the driest, it is the windiest continent on Earth. The message to the children is it's an adventure. The pictures I choose are pictures that reach them. It's the story, my delivery, that really matters, not the subject matter. For me Antarctica is kind of an odyssey. I talk about Antarctica like no one else can simply because it is so much part of my life.
Q: Where did the idea for the flags come from?
A: I was looking for some way to do this. I wasn't happy with just doing my token lecture to a group of children. I thought it has to touch them more.
The flag is very symbolic. You salute the flag. You find a flag on a ship. It signifies something. A flag always means something very special. There is some allegiance. Most elementary schools don't have flags [of their own design]. I basically asked schools to make me flags to take to Antarctica to fly from my snowmobile. I feel these little things, these innuendoes, these subtle constructs can help create morale and can be, by themselves, very uplifting.
I have returned flags to 34 schools in two years. I am now taking two weeks to return flags to five schools in Japan. I think, for instance, Collington Square School in Baltimore will always remember this. They have this flag that traveled to Antarctica, and they have the pictures, and you can see they are very proud. I plan to go back there again to carry the message through.
Q: Where does the Blue Ice corporation fit in?
A: It was legally registered on May 1. It is set up for education and to ensure scientific literacy. It is going to be the vehicle whereby I take this to all the elementary children in America, and to make the children of Japan and the children of America communicate with each other. The crucial thing, which is one of the reasons I started Blue Ice, is I can't do all these things myself. I have to get start-up money. The thing that is interfering is basically I have a full-time job.
I had to find out if this, indeed, could reach children and really make a difference. Could it reach teachers, and could it reach parents, because this is the triumvirate that has to work together if we are going to have education.
4( My conclusion is a resounding "Yes."