When the blurry image on the screen sharpened to reveal a mother penguin sitting on her nest, the kindergartners couldn’t contain their excitement.
Though the penguin and children were separated by more than 8,800 miles, the bird met their shrieks with a squawk of alarm.
Nearly 100 kindergarten students at Mount Vernon Exploratory School were able to “visit” a penguin rookery on Ross Island, a small active volcanic island off the Antarctic coast through Skype, a video-call service.
Jean Pennycook, a scientist with the National Science Foundation stationed on the island, called the school Thursday afternoon to help the students better understand their recent lesson on penguins. Pennycook was on the last day of her two-month expedition in Antarctica where she studies the habits of the Adelie penguins.
“They’re one of the two birds that are only in Antarctica,” Pennycook said as she turned the camera around to give the students a better view of the penguins.
“These penguins are only here. You’ll never see them anywhere else. They’re hard to keep in zoos and aquariums, because they have to be kept in such cold weather and have food preferences that are difficult to maintain. They come up to about my knee. They’re very active birds. They have a lot of personality. They’re sturdy birds, it’s not like picking up a chicken. They’re heavy and strong. They can be kind of grumpy if I try to touch them. They’ll bite each other if they get too close to each other’s nests.”
Pennycook answered questions from the students about how the birds eat fish and keep warm in the arctic temperatures. She showed the children how the penguins use the island’s black lava rocks to build their nests since there are no trees or shrubs.
Pennycook took the children on a “walk” to a nearby inlet where penguins were busy diving into the ocean for fish. She pointed out the view across the ocean to several mountains in the distance marking the continent of Antarctica.
Many of the children were more concerned with how Pennycook survived the harsh environment.
She showed the children her heavy parka and explained she wears four layers — about 25 pounds — of clothes to keep warm. She lives in a canvas tent powered by solar panels and warmed with propane heaters.
Pennycook laughed and told the children life in Antarctica isn’t exactly comfortable. She only gets to wash her clothes or take showers once a month when a helicopter comes to take her and her partner to McMurdo Station, the main U.S. station in Antarctica.
Kristi Crumpton, media specialist at Mount Vernon Exploratory School, said the meeting with Pennycook is an example of how the school is trying to teach the children how to use technology to connect with their world.
“We’re really trying to broaden our kids’ global awareness,” Crumpton said. “They’ll need to get to used to this. Probably when they’re older, this is how the majority of them will work with people all over the world and they’re going to need to be able to communicate through (technology).”
Lily Kate Morgan, 6, said she thought it was “really neat” to speak with a scientist in real time over the Internet.
“I was kind of surprised that she didn’t really wash her clothes,” Lily Kate said, smiling. “I thought that was kind of silly.”
Her classmate, Oliwia Collins, said she liked learning about and being able to see the terrain.
“I learned that there were volcanos on (the island),” she said.
Of course, seeing the baby penguins or “fledglings” was also a hit.
“They’re just so cute,” Oliwia said, giggling as she wrapped her arms around herself.