Following the Sun

Upper School math teacher Derek Podolny used a grant from the Community Foundations R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence to study celestial navigation in Antarctica.
Before his career as a math teacher began at Douglas Freeman High School in 2011, Derek Podolny served as a Submarine Nuclear Engineer Officer in the United States Navy. Responsible for operations of fleets of submarines, Podolny loved the math of navigation; the numerical technicalities involved in a journey served as his domain, his place of expertise. Now, as a math teacher in the Upper School, Podolny brings that navigational love with him to the classroom.

“There’s so much math involved in navigation, and I’m always thinking about how I can introduce that to students,” he says. “So, in class, we’ve used bearings like land navigation to talk about distance traveled, we’ve talked about how we can use different formulas for sine and cosine to create maps, and we’ve mapped out a submarines’ course though the water to figure out how far it has traveled.”

But Podolny, in his work surveying the murky depths below the ocean, always felt that one navigational tool eluded him: celestial navigation, the practice of using solar points to accurately determine someone’s current position on Earth. Podolny had always admired the great polar explorer Ernest Henry Shackelton, particularly for his 1914 Trans-Antarctic expedition, which left Shackleton and his crew stranded at sea northwest of Antarctica, forcing him to use celestial navigation to map their 800-mile, open-boat journey back to land. It was a story that united the two things that most excited Podolny: math and adventure. 

So when Podolny received a grant through Community Foundations R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence, he knew we wanted to study the role mathematics plays in celestial navigation in Antarctica. In December 2022, Podolny found a sextant, an instrument that looks like a funky protractor with a monocle attached to it used to measure the space between the horizon and the sun, and set off with his son Daniel ’31 for a 12-day trip through Antarctica. 

Surrounded by mountains and glassy blue water that jumped with penguins and seals, he conducted what he giddily calls “awesome math.” “We went down to the peninsula of Antarctica, and at first you’re just in awe — how large everything is, how pristine,” Podolny says. And then he got to work, tracking the sun in the morning, at high noon and in the evening. “I’d get those three readings to get our position, and then I would compare what I got to what our GPS was saying,” he explains. “And I was really impressed that, using nothing more than the sun and a simple instrument like the sexton, gave me a pretty good idea of where we were.”

As is his habit, Podolny now intends to take what he’s learned about math’s applications in celestial navigation back to the classroom. Over the summer, he’ll develop a curriculum that he then hopes to implement in the fall. “I’m going to take all that data I got in Antarctica and channel it into some sort of usable classroom material,” he says. “It’ll be another way to show students the possibilities available that employ what they’re learning in the classroom elsewhere in the world.”