By Bill Jirsa Special to The Antarctic Sun

Dani DiPietro didn’t find her first stay in Antarctica last summer season tough enough.

“The whole reason I went to Pole was because I wanted a bigger challenge. I thought (McMurdo) was way too cush. It really bugged me.”

DiPietro complained that her habits from the U.S. were largely unaltered because there wasn’t a lack of anything at McMurdo Station like showers, laundry, communications, or even warm weather. (“It’s not cold,” she said flatly.)

“…So then I went to the Pole, and now that I’ve been there, I’m not sure it was hard enough.”

Where do you go next if the austerity of the Amundson-Scott South Pole Station seems a bit soft? Space, of course.

“I will have no problem going to Mars,” she confided. Her aim is to make it to space as part of NASA’s astronaut-educator program. Dozens of participants train to be among the few selected for shuttle missions. She was among the top 500 selected in previous years, and once she returns to teaching, she intends to apply again.

For DiPietro, part of the draw of going to places like Antarctica, or even leaving the planet, is bringing it all back to the classroom.

“I get to come back and I get to teach kids about it,” DiPietro said, smiling. Originally from Pennsylvania, she’s been living and teaching in Seattle for seven years, at all levels between first grade and high school. She has also worked at places like the Seattle Science Center where she ran the planetarium. She looks forward to making topics personal to her students via her Antarctic experience when she eventually returns to teaching.

“I actually think that’s what kids remember the most,” she says. “They don’t really care how fast the speed of light is… That’s not what makes a class experience stick out… I think if you can personalize something and actually give it more ownership and make it more relevant, I think that’s the way that you actually get things across.” DiPietro will work this winter in McMurdo as a labor allocator with Facilities Engineering Maintenance and Construction. Before her job in McMurdo this winter, she spent the summer at the South Pole, where her avid correspondence with classrooms in the U.S. usually revolved around a lively approach to questions of science.

“I’m a goof-ball about that,” she said. “I think science is a lot of fun.”

If she’s not at the South Pole telling 3rd graders whether spit actually freezes before it hits the ground (it doesn’t, unless you’re on an elevated platform), she’s used to being in a classroom turning things different colors or blowing stuff up to teach some science. As with everything, she looks to arrive at an “ah-ha” moment through humor and exploit. Spend some time with DiPietro and you’re bound to experience her infectious laugh.

Does that mean she is attracted to extremes?

“I’m the kid that likes all the roller coasters at the amusement park,” she beamed.

Her favorite volunteer work in Antarctica was the time she served as guest blaster, helping a team prepare the way for construction. In other words, she got to blow stuff up.

Her sense of adventure extends to her volunteer gig playing music on McMurdo’s radio station, where her approach to programming is spontaneous. “Sometimes I also do the old look through the book, see the name of somebody I’ve never listened to in my life, and play that,” she said. “Just because that way you get to know more music.”

Her pluck has also lead her to teach abroad. DiPietro spent a year in Ecuador teaching science, where she learned to handle threats from natural disasters to taxi strikes, as well as the valuable lesson that she could survive in a country where the language and the culture are completely new.

It was in Quito, Ecuador that she ran into a former student and had one of those moments that every teacher lives for. Turning at the familiar sound of her teaching name in a foreign capital, she found one of her first eighth-graders standing there, now a college student on a college-exchange year.

During their subsequent conversation, the former student revealed that DiPietro’s teaching had influenced her choice of study.

“‘My second major is biology because of you.'” DiPietro said the student told her.

“Being a teacher, that’s probably the greatest compliment anybody could ever give.”

DiPietro hopes to teach next in Thailand or Tunisia. That would further her goal of living on all seven continents. With Antarctica under her belt, and counting her year in Ecuador, she’s visited five, and she’s lived on three.

Throughout her travels, DiPietro stays connected to her family, friends, and former students via her bi-weekly e-mail newsletter. It now goes to over 400 people, and she is gathering more readers all the time. She just learned that reading her newsletter is extra-credit for a group of 6th, 7th and 8th graders in Maryland.

She seems to make friends just as easily as she gains new readers. “I try to make the most of where I am,” she said, as she looked forward to a winter in McMurdo.