No matter where you live in the world, you’ve probably experienced a weather phenomenon that has left a lasting impression on you. Growing up in Boston, I have many winter memories of impending nor’easters. I would be glued to the news every evening to learn about any storm developments—after all, school closings were at stake!
Today, Earth-observing satellites and other technologies are making it possible to track storms like these on your own, and NOVA’s Cloud Lab lets you do just that. The Cloud Lab is a digital platform that challenges students to classify clouds and investigate the role clouds play in severe tropical storms. Using data and imagery from NASA’s worldview, the Lab offers a unique environment where students can use their knowledge to track and predict the behavior of storms developing right now. I recently spoke with Boston’s 7NEWS Chief Meteorologist Pete Bouchard, who also served as an advisor on the Cloud Lab. Below you can read about how Pete got interested in meteorology, and why he thinks the Cloud Lab may help inspire your students to enter his field.
Q: How did you become interested in meteorology?
I’ve always had a fascination with weather. Since I was about 6 years old growing up in California, the weather has always intrigued me. Whenever it rained out west (a rarity at times) it always seemed like a major event—or at least it did to me. Of course, these were the days before the internet, so knowledge of the subject was limited. And I think the scarcity of information compelled me to learn more about it. Once I started down that path, I never looked back.
Q: How did you become a weatherman on TV?
It started in college. I took a course in TV meteorology where we were graded on our performance and forecasting ability. With close scrutiny, I honed my skills in front of the camera and upon graduation applied for TV weather jobs in New England. Luckily, I have been able to stay here for my entire career.
Chief Meteorologist, Pete Bouchard. Image courtesy of WHDH.com
Q: When you visit schools and talk to students about meteorology, what questions do you get asked most often?
Severe weather is the most often asked question. What is lightning? What are microbursts? How do tornadoes/hurricanes form? Can we get hit? I try to answer—and appease fears—as best I can.
Q: What do you think science teachers would be surprised to learn about weather and the field of meteorology today?
That it’s an evolving, young science. There are many things we’re learning. Climate is changing—how will it affect our future weather patterns? The models are getting better, but who has the best one? Long range forecasting is the holy grail. Are we any closer to making reliable seasonal forecasts? How will weather fit in the mobile world? Will apps replace the local weather person?
Q: Based on your experience as a Cloud Lab advisor, why do you think the NOVA Cloud Lab is a useful tool for teachers?
We’re stretched thin with our multiple responsibilities (to the internet, apps, newscasts, etc.) these days, so we can’t visit schools as often as we’d like. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had to cancel a visit to a school over the past few years because of a pending storm. With the Cloud Lab, teachers can have a step-by-step tutorial of the processes and methodology behind one of the basic elements in weather: clouds. It’s like having a personal visit from a meteorologist!
Q: If a teacher is interested in inviting a meteorologist into their classroom to talk with their students, how do you recommend they go about doing that?
We have a section on our website where someone can request a visit. Most television sites have this. If not, email them directly and they should refer you to the right person.
This blog is part of NOVA’s Earth System Science Initiative. To find related resources, please visit NOVA Education’s Earth System Science Collection.
I had the chance recently to speak with Dr. Lora Koenig, a physical scientist in the Cryosphere Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Koenig is interested in detecting changes in the accumulation of snow over ice sheets using data from passive microwave satellite sensors that have been observing the planet’s poles for over three decades. She studies the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets from up close, using field techniques like snow pits and ice cores, and over broad scales, through airborne and space-borne sensors. Her ground-based studies have included spending a total of over 12 months in the Arctic and Antarctic to validate satellite measurements with ground observations.
Q: How did you become interested in science?
Have you ever seen the Star Wars movies? Me, I loved them — not the newer Episodes I-III, but the originals, Episodes IV-VI. Actually, I really didn’t have much to say about the first movie, since I was just 15 days old on opening night. But The Empire Strikes Back was probably the first movie I ever saw. For those who haven’t seen it, or if it’s been a while since you last saw it, let me remind you that it opens on the icy planet Hoth. I still vividly remember the opening scene of snow blowing across the desolate icy landscape. I was fascinated by the scenery.
I suspect my enchantment with Hoth, paired with my early love of skiing, led me to my current career. I am now a NASA Earth scientist and I study the massive ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica. These vast ice sheets have been in the news a lot lately and rightfully so: As temperatures warm across the globe, the ice sheets lose mass, causing sea levels to rise. Predicting the future sea level rise from ice loss takes a large community of scientists—some study how ice flows, others how it interacts with the ocean, while others develop computer models capable of predicting future change. My research focuses on determining and monitoring snow fall over the ice sheets, which are large and desolate places where we don’t have many direct measurements of snow accumulation.
Q: What is it like working in such extreme environments?
My research is truly exciting and has led me to Antarctica three times and to Greenland four times. I have walked where no one else has walked and spent a dark polar winter in the center of Greenland, where the ice is about two miles thick, all in the name of science. When I am in the field, I gather ice cores and radar data. Both methods give me information about how snow accumulates in layers every year; it’s like counting tree rings. When I started in the field, I had to drive snowmobiles over long distances to gather enough radar and ice core data to be able to relate these ground measurements to the larger-scale satellite measurements, which would be equivalent to using snow-speeders or Tauntauns on planet Hoth. I have spent months driving across vast extensions of ice gathering data. In the past few years, though, new generations of radars mounted on aircraft have essentially replaced snowmobile traverses for radar studies. The advantage of taking radar measurements from a plane is that it allows scientists to collect more data over a much larger area, in less time.
Dr. Lora Koenig gathering ice cores in the field
Q: What will ice sheet research look like in 20 years?
I think it will look more similar to today’s Mars studies than to today’s Earth research. Many of the big questions left in my field of research require measurements below miles-thick ice or deep underwater at the front of calving glaciers. These are areas where robots will go, not humans. In the future I expect many of my current field duties will be outsourced to robots. This is already occurring. In May we began testing a solar-powered robot called Grover, the Greenland Rover. Grover collects radar data in central Greenland, as we would have previously done on snowmobile. But since it doesn’t need to rest, it operates 24/7 and sends us e-mail updates about its progress. As for airborne research, I believe we will transition to Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) that stay aloft longer, thus gathering more data. UAS are already conducting small studies in the polar regions (check out the CASIE mission). So in the future, I believe I will pack less boxes to ship to the field and spend more time in front of a video screen, monitoring the real-time data sophisticated robots collect.
Q: What would you tell students who may be interested in studying glaciology?
Let me take you back to Hoth. In the opening scenes, Luke and Chewy had left Echo Base looking for an Imperial drone. Star Wars had it right: The best way to monitor cold and icy environment is by using drones. So, if you are cold adverse, don’t worry, you should still consider going into glaciology — there will be plenty of future opportunities of doing field work from your desktop. Or, if you are like me and love being in sub-freezing temperatures, don’t worry, either: You too will have a place in glaciology, because I am sure a drone will go astray every now and then and will need to be rescued.
This blog is part of NOVA’s Earth System Science Initiative. To find related resources, please visit NOVA Education’s Earth System Science Collection.
NOVA recently launched the Cloud Lab—an online interactive that enables authentic student research with scientific data. NOVA Education celebrates the release of this third Lab with a special blog series exploring the importance of Big Data and its implications for STEM education, starting with the following.
Big Data. If you haven’t already heard about it, your hard drive has. We are generating digital information at such a frightening pace that some scientific fields are now dealing with a “data catastrophe”—where more data is being collected than can physically be stored. In 2011, Science magazine explored the issues surrounding this increasingly huge influx of research data in a special edition. From this collection of articles reaching across a breadth of scientific fields, two themes emerged:
- Most scientific disciplines are finding the data deluge to be extremely challenging
- Tremendous opportunities can be realized if we can better organize and access the data. (Source)
It is this second theme of opportunity that I would like to explore through the lens of K-12 formal education and teacher Professional Development in a series of blog postings that I am calling Big Data in the Classroom.
But before I start throwing any facts and figures at you, here is a personal story about what this transition looks like to someone engaged in scientific research.
When I was an undergraduate physics major, I spent 4 nights in 1996 on a mountain in Arizona observing a few individual stars to research their variability. My method involved measuring the rate of incoming photons and graphing the data to generate a light curve for each variable star. Between weather and equipment issues, I was able to gather only a few hours of usable data over the course of four nights—thankfully this was enough to finish my senior research project.
Now, 1996 wasn’t that long ago (at least I like to tell myself that), but if I was doing research in astrophysics today, my methods would look quite different. Thanks to robotic telescopes and a fleet of different satellites, many sky surveys have gathered and stored spectra and images across multiple wavelengths of light, offering researchers large collections of data just waiting to be queried and downloaded. Gone is the image of the astronomer sitting with their eye to a telescope eyepiece. Now, I could simply go to the AAVSO or SDSS sites and download the data I need for my research. More importantly, I would never need to travel to a mountain, wait for good weather, or possibly even operate a telescope or learn a constellation!
But why should you, as a science educator, care about this? “Big Data” represents the fundamental evolution of the tools and methods of scientific research—and the gathering and availability of data is no longer the limiting factor. The Digital Renaissance is here, and in many fields there is now more data than scientists know what to do with. Adding to this volume of new digital data, there are also efforts to bring specimens that are currently deep in storage in natural history museums—called “dark data”— into the digital age, making their secrets available to researchers, to the general public, and to you and your students.
As a science educator, the implications of this sea-change in the very nature of scientific data and information touches everything from you and your practice, to what your students—future scientists or not—will face in their careers and lives. It also informs the very design of your classroom laboratory equipment and lessons, as well as your selection of professional development experiences. In the next blog in this series, I will explore some of the implications of “Big Data” for your classroom instruction.
To further investigate “Big Data” in science, visit:
There is an old adage in the policy world that rings true in the process of transforming education and standards revision. It’s called “making the hippos dance,” and it refers to grandiose policy recommendations and ideas that are implemented on the ground or at scale. Like the hippo, educational reform is monumental and often ungraceful; to make this creature dance would seem almost impossible. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are a similar behemoth; we have these great, peer-reviewed, research-based pedagogical standards at the ready to transform science teaching and learning for generations, but on top of everything else that a teacher is responsible for in a day, application can seem a colossal task—especially given the NGSS’s emphasis on process-oriented tasks and the integration of crosscutting concepts and engineering practices. According to Horizon Research,1 only 7 percent of teachers surveyed felt they were “well prepared” to teach engineering. I would argue that many teachers currently teach in the spirit of NGSS; through professional development with careful, reflective practices, you’ll have this hippo up on its feet and ready to Harlem Shake.
The NGSS are largely pedagogical standards; that is, their methodology engages students with the content using the practices of authentic scientific study. Thus, the development of curriculum (i.e., what you do every day in the classroom) is largely up to state or district developers and the teachers themselves. The standards have explicit supports, with the educator in mind, to guide activities that build upon students’ prior knowledge and the critical thinking skills needed for future academic success. This is a unique and exciting time in K–12 science—the teaching professionals are leading in the creation of instructional curricula that will be used nationwide.
For example, Earth and environmental science teachers will be presented with this new standard (HS-ESS2-7), where students “Construct an argument based on evidence about the simultaneous co-evolution of Earth’s systems and life on Earth.” The NGSS include clarification statements to illustrate content examples that may be used to contextualize this standard. Assessment boundaries demonstrate that the focus is on student understanding or application, not memorization.
A unique aspect of the NGSS is a three-fold system of student engagement: each standard has corresponding science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. These provide guidance in terms of the expected vertical alignment, its relationship to other branches of science, and the conceptual significance to the overall nature of science. Unlike previous state-based content standards, where topics were placed indiscriminately into various grade levels, the NGSS are thoughtful in scaffolding knowledge and fostering interdisciplinary studies in all areas of science and literacy.
So, how would you teach this in your classroom? Here is where professional development is critical to the successful implementation of the NGSS. Many schools already require teachers to meet in grade-level or content-based teams called professional learning communities (PLCs). You can use this time to analyze and develop best practices in the context of the NGSS. Inventory your group’s favorite activities and determine why they are so successful for students—use this as your starting point to develop your curriculum. You’ll find NGSS patterns emerging in existing practices like modeling, note-booking, student-developed protocols, KWLs, and inquiry-based learning. With NGSS, we must go further and transform these lessons into dynamic content that is student-centered and embedded with the hallmarks of STEM practices. If a successful lesson incorporated student discussion, how can it be advanced to scientific argumentation? Instead of having students follow a stepwise protocol, could they design their own or research existing protocols to use? How are students’ questions and curiosities driving the instruction in this lesson? Are the 21st-century skills of critical thinking, online research, and experimentation being used in this lesson?
To capture various ideas, create a chart similar to the one below, outlining each component of STEM. Then brainstorm ways to meet that standard through STEM integration.
For this example, students may conduct online research using credible, peer-reviewed sources to provide a diversity of examples that illustrate co-evolving systems on earth. They can pair-share to critique the arguments and identify the evolutionary mechanisms behind these symbiotic relationships. Students can begin to infer which relationships are delicate or more stable, which have endured throughout geologic time, and which have dissolved due to climate change, extinction events, or human-based effects. They may evaluate how current anthropomorphic systems are or are not playing a role in that evolution today. As a formative assessment, challenge students to design models or engineer solutions to promote biotic–abiotic balances. At their core, engineering practices view natural resources as being limited; this creates a great vehicle to integrate and contextualize mathematics study.
Lastly, when you are crafting your lessons with NGSS in mind, consider whether they are enjoyable and engaging. Are students having fun connecting with the content? Are you having fun thinking of new and exciting ways to teach the content you adore? After all, a major purpose of the new science standards is to cultivate student curiosity and foster a generation of radically new creative thinkers and problem solvers. So, enjoy the collegiality and reflection upon your daily practice. Professionally, encourage your coworkers to bring in lessons that you can modify together, and share your challenges and successes in your PLCs. Personally, reconnect with your content in a new and novel way; engage with your students in a dynamic fashion that you may have done only occasionally or never before.
I hope you find your hippo dancing. I’ve heard that when one learns, it can spread widely among the herd.
1Banilower, E. R., Smith, P. S., Weiss, I. R., Malzahn, K. A., Campbell, K. M., & Weis, A. M. (2013). Report of the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.
This blog is part of NOVA’s Earth System Science Initiative. To find related resources, please visit NOVA Education’s Earth System Science Collection.
In 1967, a decade after the launch of Sputnik 1, then U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson said of satellite technology, “We’ve spent [billions] on the space program. And if nothing else had come out of it except the knowledge that we gained from space photography, it would be worth ten times what the whole program has cost.”* This was, of course, two years before NASA put a man on the moon and set the new standard for U.S. scientific achievement, but still, Johnson’s statement is striking. Apart from any manned missions or other exploratory endeavors, advances in satellite photography of our own planet made the entire space program financially viable.
When President Johnson made this statement he was, of course, talking about the benefits to military intelligence inherent in satellite technology, but there are other advances in space photography and videography that are, while arguably less noteworthy, no less important. Today, NASA uses a variety of Earth-observing satellite systems. These satellites are not used for military surveillance, but instead are deployed to act as scientific measurement tools to help give us a better understanding of the global environment.
© 2013 WGBH Educational Foundation
The study of the interaction between the Earth’s systems, otherwise known as Earth system science (ESS), is one of the most complex and fascinating disciplines ever conceived. Technological advancements in satellites provide us with more intricately detailed information than ever about how the cycles of air, land, water, and life interact to define the context within which we live our lives on this planet, and they highlight more than ever the fragility of our ecology.
NOVA’s new special “Earth From Space” captures with striking elegance the dynamic quality of Earth’s many systems. By combining information collected from satellites with state-of-the-art computer models, NOVA’s production team has rendered graphics that are not only scientifically accurate, but also dazzlingly beautiful. The end result is a show that is as aesthetically appealing as it is scientifically informative.
The knowledge gained from our satellites is assorted, precise, vast, and supports the advancement of science that provides us with an important lens through which to understand the most fundamental thing we have: our home. In order to survive and prosper in the future, humans need to know as much as we can about our planet and the way it functions. In order to help, NOVA has produced an Education Collection focused on Earth system science and designed to help educators investigate the various manifestations of ESS with their students.
Sadly, the sobering truth is that in the next decade, the number of Earth observing satellites in NASA’s fleet will go from 20 to fewer than 10. To put it simply, ESS hangs in the balance due to our uncertain economic future. “Earth From Space” makes a compelling case for the support of our satellite systems. These aren’t simply orbiting pieces of space junk. Rather, they give us the perspective necessary to understand our lives in a truly global context.
That, ultimately, is the gift of programs like “Earth From Space.” They serve as a resource to help humanity gain perspective that we so often lack in the day-to-day goings on of existence. NOVA is streaming the program online. If you have a chance, check it out. Earth system science never looked so good.
* DeNooyer, R. (Writer), & Wolfinger, K. (Producer) (2007). Sputnik declassified [Television series episode]. In Apsell, P. S. (Executive Producer), NOVA. Boston, MA: WGBH Educational Foundation.
I was always a dedicated student, but by the end of the school year I was more than ready for a break. Those final weeks were especially difficult—dwindling motivation amidst a hectic schedule of final exams—all with summer on the horizon—was enough to make even the most committed students doubt their resolve.
During one springtime that followed a particularly rough winter in high school, it finally reached about 70 degrees, and my classmates and I asked to go outside for every single class. The 14 year-old version of me was disappointed that this request was only granted once or twice.
As the year comes to a close, it is more challenging than ever to keep students engaged, so NOVA Education has put together a list of our most popular videos and interactives. From DNA to earthquakes to the periodic table, there are resources to capture the attention of every student (even those counting down the seconds until their summer officially begins).
Our “best of” list is below, but if any of your favorite resources are missing, let us know!
1. Create a DNA Fingerprint—Create a DNA fingerprint and then compare it to the fingerprint of seven suspects to nab the perpetrator.
2. NOVA Elements—Like the popular iPad app, in this web version you can explore an interactive periodic table, build atoms, molecules, and elements, and play the “Essential Elements” game to construct elements found in everyday objects.
3. Forensic DNA Analysis—Follow a team of experts as they investigate the forensic evidence from the 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard, one of the most famous unsolved crimes in U.S. history.
4. Developing the Periodic Table—Learn how the periodic table developed its current form thanks to chemist Dmitri Mendeleev.
5. Regulating Genes—Study how mutations in different regions of DNA impact the expression of genes, predict how these mutations impact development, and observe how mutations may give rise to any developmental changes.
6. Epigenetics—Learn what the epigenome is, and see how researchers are studying mice as well as humans to determine how gene expression is affected by environmental factors and lifestyle choices.
7. Hunting the Elements Education Collection—Explore our collection of resources based on the “Hunting the Elements” program, which showcases the world of weird, extreme chemistry. The collection includes resources like #4, one of our most popular videos.
8. Earthquake! When Plates Collide—Learn about the concept of plate tectonics and how it causes earthquakes.
9. Mount Pinatubo: Predicting a Volcanic Eruption—See the race to read the signs presented by Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines just before it unleashed one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions of the 20th century.
10. What’s This Stuff?—Learn about the physical, chemical, and mechanical properties of ten mystery materials.
For those of you already working on your lesson plans for next year, these are the perfect resources to build into a curriculum. Try them out and see if our most popular educator resources can help you bring important science concepts to life for your students.
Suppose that you could create a K–12 science and engineering curriculum from scratch. How would you go about doing it? Over the past four years, that’s essentially what we have done: first by writing the National Research Council’s report, A Framework for K–12 Science Education Standards: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas; and now by constructing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). My own responsibilities have primarily been in the area of Earth and space science, so let me rephrase my initial question. If you could create a K–12 Earth and space science (ESS) curriculum from scratch, how would you go about doing it? If you’re an Earth science teacher, I’m guessing that you would probably do what we did. First…
Reduce the amount of content. I don’t mean the amount of time to be spent on ESS, but rather the amount of information. You want content that is shorter but deeper, so you don’t have to rush through lesson plans to cover all the information on a state test. The NGSS do this with a reduced number of performance expectations. Information used to be hard to come by. My school years were spent bicycling across town to the library to write my reports. Kids now have a universe of information at their fingertips, and there’s no need for them to memorize factoids. In fact, there is too much information available. What we really need is a….
Greater emphasis on system processes. While memorizing the names of planets, minerals, or clouds is not important (this is what Google is for), it is important to understand the roles the planets, minerals, and clouds play in different Earth and space systems. Instruction should focus on building a mental infrastructure that will give the students a place to organize all the scientific information they’ll encounter during their lifetimes. That way, they can treat the facts as just the means to an end, like tools. You don’t need to carry all your tools around with you all the time; you just pick them up when you need them and put them away when you’re done. The Earth and space science performance expectations of the NGSS do this by focusing on the processes that operate with the space system, solar system, and interconnected Earth systems of the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and anthrosphere. This approach focuses not on the scientific information, but rather how to apply it. This leads to a…
Greater emphasis on practice. Educational research has clearly demonstrated that if you want students to learn about, value, and be excited about science, the best way is to have them do science. This is why every performance expectation of the NGSS starts with a practice. The NGSS are not about what the students know, but what they can do. But this goes far beyond the traditional “inquiry-based” learning. In the same way that there is no single scientific method, there is also no single practice of science. Scientists analyze data, construct models, carry out investigations, ask questions, construct explanations, obtain and communicate information, and so on, and they do these things in different ways at different times and in different orders. Students will not only enjoy science more, but will understand it better if they do the same.
Greater integration. Science education needs to be viewed as a whole rather than as a set of discrete topics and must serve as a connected part of a student’s entire education. This is especially important for Earth and space science, which is a highly integrated and synoptic field with many applications directly tied to human endeavors. The NGSS strive to be better integrated at multiple levels.
- Significant effort was taken to ensure a greater uniformity of style and approach across the three areas of life science, physical science, and Earth and space science, recognizing that the boundaries between these areas are totally artificial and arbitrary and that there’s a great deal of overlap. Emphasis on the Crosscutting Concepts and Nature of Science help make this integration happen.
- The NGSS incorporate the concepts of engineering and technology because the boundary between science and engineering is also artificial.
- The NGSS are integrated with the Common Core of math and English language arts, with direct connections called out from each NGSS performance expectation.
- The NGSS progresses smoothly from kindergarten to grade 12, not just in the scientific content, but in all other parts as well. In each of the Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, Nature of Science, and Engineering Concepts, a grade-band progress is developed and employed within the performance expectations.
More Earth and space science in high school. The NGSS finally recognize Earth and space science as the rigorous, relevant, complex, quantitative science that it has become. The NGSS require a year of ESS in both middle and high school. In fact, there are roughly as many performance expectations for Earth and space science in high school as there are for physics and chemistry combined. What’s more, a set of Course Maps demonstrates that because of the complexity and interconnectedness of most of the ESS content, the bulk of it needs to be taught after physical and life science in both middle and high school. There has long been talk of the need for a high school capstone science course in Earth and space science. Implemented in the optimal manner, the NGSS would do this by having Earth and space taught in high school after physics, chemistry, and biology.
More relevant content. Look at the front page of a national newspaper over the course of a year and you’ll see that Earth and space science dominates the headlines far more than any other scientific field: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, climate change, exploding meteors, droughts, floods, coal resources, gas prices, mineral resources, water supplies, oil spills, hydrofracking, solar storms, environmental impacts… the list goes on and on. Earth and space science directly impacts the lives of humans in countless ways. The very course of civilization has been intimately shaped by climate change, natural catastrophes, and the availability of natural resources. As the philosopher Will Durant said, “Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” The fact that no civilization in human history has lasted very long poses a severe reminder to us that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. This situation is even more critical now that humans, with booming populations and industrialization, have become the largest single agent of geologic change on Earth’s surface, altering the land, air, and water faster than any geoscience process. It’s not only timely that the NGSS will provide students with a much deeper understanding of Earth and space science. Our very survival may depend upon it.
This blog is part of NOVA’s Earth System Science Initiative. To find related resources, please visit NOVA Education’s Earth System Science Collection.
The Harvard Science Center is situated across Cambridge Street to the north of Harvard Yard. If you take the elevator to the 8th floor, go through an unmarked door on the left side, and follow the signs up a few flights of stairs, you’ll find yourself inside a room whose walls are vividly painted with astrological figures, and whose ceiling isn’t a ceiling at all, but rather a mechanical dome. This dome belongs to the Landon T. Clay telescope.
Often, when I was in graduate school, my friends and I would gather on weekday evenings when we should have been studying, and instead we would spend a few hours gazing up at the sky. Many of my favorite memories of Harvard are of nights we spent at the Clay. The person who taught me to use the telescope was a girl named Sarah. It’s thanks to her, at least in part, that I spent so many fantastic hours there. It’s ironic then, that if Sarah and I had attended Harvard at a different time in history, she wouldn’t have even been allowed to operate the observatory’s instruments.
We are capable of measuring the distance to stellar bodies thanks to Henrietta Swan Leavitt. Astronomers today still use classification techniques developed by Annie Jump Cannon. Jocelyn Bell discovered the first quasar. Vera Rubin’s observations led to the theory, now widely accepted, of the existence of dark matter. It is undeniable that these women’s work has been instrumental in giving us a more complete understanding of the universe in which we exist. Unfortunately, it is also true that they’ve received an unsettling lack of recognition for their contributions. Leavitt and Cannon did much of their amazing work while serving as “computers,” women whose job it was to perform the arduous task of sorting, analyzing, and classifying stars seen through the telescopes at the Harvard College Observatory. For this work, they received about 25 cents an hour, less than the Harvard secretarial staff at the time. When Rubin first hypothesized the existence of dark matter, she was largely ignored. And when the Nobel Prize was given out for Jocelyn Bell’s quasar discovery, the award actually went to her male thesis advisor.
Today, of course, women in sciences enjoy more opportunities and credit for their work, but sadly, peek in on many science buildings across the country, and you’ll find far more men than women populating the classrooms and laboratories. Further, the NSF has found, through its research into the professional science and engineering sector, that a pronounced gender gap still exists.
Recognizing this gender gap, many scientists and professional organizations have increasingly been working to support and build community for women in their ranks. One such organization is the American Physical Society, which supports the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP). The annual event includes 6 member institutions (Caltech, Colorado School of Mines, Cornell, U. of Central Florida, UI Urbana-Champaign, and UT Austin) representing various regions of the country. Students are invited to attend, and sponsors pay for attendees’ room and board during the weekend of the event. Those in attendance (mostly female undergrads) get to experience a professional conference firsthand, and are introduced to women of stature in the physics community. The generalization that “science and math are for boys” while “language arts and humanities are for girls” is not in evidence at these conferences. Students leave with a renewed spirit and confidence, knowing that they’re capable of achieving great things in their chosen field, despite what the stereotypes might suggest. With any luck, one, or perhaps several of those students will follow in the footsteps of a Leavitt, a Cannon, a Rubin, or a Bell, and our society will once again have a woman to thank for helping us to understand just that much more about science.
One hot, unusually dry summer in my early teen years, the reservoir near my Idaho home all but disappeared. As the water receded, the remnants of a town emerged. The town had been relocated when the reservoir was built in the 1920s, but much had remained under water. Decades later, walking through the crumbling foundations and uncovering mud-encrusted artifacts, it was easy to imagine life in that other era.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I find myself looking into the past again, but this time I have information beyond hints and imagination. I have more than 40 years worth of satellite imagery showing change across Earth’s landscapes.
In 1972, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey launched the first Landsat satellite into orbit around the Earth, and since that time, at least one Landsat satellite has always been in operation. The record is set to grow into the future with the launch of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (Landsat 8) on February 11, 2013. We will be able to compare the view offered by Landsat 8 with observations taken by the first Landsat and every subsequent Landsat, providing the longest continuous space-based view of land in existence. With Landsat, I can literally see into the past.
The sweeping look across four decades is becoming more and more important as we face changes from both land use decisions and climate change. By understanding how our decisions in the past have affected the land, we can make more informed decisions in the future.
For example, Dr. Alan Belward of the European Commission’s Joint Research Center uses Landsat data to map the world’s forests to give policy makers the information they need to make tough choices about how to use limited resources. “It’s only by viewing Landsat data that we would know how quickly the world’s forests are being destroyed,” says Belward. “We’re losing about a football field worth of forest every four seconds of every minute of every day.”
Not only does this mean that we have fewer trees removing carbon from the atmosphere, but also that much of the carbon formerly stored in those trees ends up in the atmosphere. In fact, deforestation and other land use accounts for 10 percent of all carbon emissions related to human activity. Rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide is the primary cause of climate change.
Deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest takes on many different patterns. In Rondônia, a state in Western Brazil, deforestation took on the fishbone pattern revealed in these Landsat images from 1975 and 2012. NASA image courtesy of Landsat team. Caption by Aries Keck.
Climate change is just one reason to keep the world’s forests intact, but limiting deforestation isn’t easy. Forests are cut down to clear land to grow food or raise livestock to support a growing population. When Landsat 1 launched in 1972, the world’s population was just under 4 billion. Today’s population exceeds 7 billion, and Landsat has seen that growth. Cities across the world have expanded, and agriculture has been transformed as we have found new ways to produce food.
“The basic fact is that natural resources, like forests and land to grow crops, are getting more and more scarce,” says Belward. “To make sensible decisions on trade-offs between different uses, you need evidence on where these resources are, what sort of condition they’re in, and how they’re changing.”
Landsat is ideal for decision makers because each pixel or image element in a Landsat scene is 30 meters, about the size of a baseball diamond—the scale at which land-use decisions are made.
What would you see if you looked back across 40 years in your hometown? Thanks to a USGS decision to provide Landsat data free of charge, the entire Landsat archive is available to you and your students. Browse the archive using the LandsatLook Viewer, then download these tutorials to learn how to get the data and make images. This standards-based classroom activity will help middle and high school students identify and measure landscape changes captured in Landsat images.
Maybe the changes you see today will inspire decisions that will be visible to the next Landsat, which NASA launched from southern California on February 11, 2013. The Landsat Data Continuity Mission—the eighth satellite in the Landsat series—will be the best Landsat satellite to date. It will be more sensitive and more reliable than earlier Landsat satellites. More importantly, it will continue the Landsat record into the future, and that matters because, in the words of William Shakespeare, what is past is prologue.
To learn more about Landsat and other NASA satellites, watch NOVA’s “Earth From Space.”
Right now, this moment, as I type, off the top of my head, I can count at least 7 devices in my cubicle that require electrical energy in order to function. That’s not counting our office’s overhead lighting system, the heating, or any of the other building-wide stuff. I’m just talking about things I can pick up. My laptop, its external monitor, my phone, my other phone, the lamps that I use at night to keep my space bright and work-friendly, the coffeemaker that keeps me bright and work-friendly…every one of these things requires electricity, and I use each of them every day, for hours. Often, I use energy without even thinking about it. The bills are paid, and services keep coming, seemingly limitless in supply.
The truth, however, isn’t nearly so idyllic. In the United States, we burn more than 100,000 tons of coal and nearly 800,000 barrels of oil every hour of every day in order to meet our energy needs. Coal and oil are fossil fuels, and they are anything but limitless. What’s more, their conversion into usable energy pollutes our environment and is a contributing factor of climate change. Our energy needs only continue to rise as our society becomes more and more reliant on electrical devices, so one sometimes wonders why technologies like Sweden’s Lillgrund Wind Farm or the SEGS solar arrays in California haven’t been leveraged effectively to solve our energy problems.
With NOVA’s Energy Lab, students learn just how complicated our energy crisis is despite the development of new tools. Through a series of video modules, students hear just how energy is defined, and about how we convert energy from various sources into the kinds of power we need in our daily lives. Students explore the promise of renewable energies like wind and solar, but they also learn about the challenges associated with using those renewables on a larger scale.
Once students have wrapped their minds around the contexts of today’s energy landscape, they jump into the online lab space and learn firsthand how complex the battle for clean renewable energy is. The Energy Lab’s Research Challenge charges students with the task of building efficient new energy infrastructures for cities across the U.S. Students use real scientific data gathered from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) as well as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to organize systems using renewable sources. There’s added incentive in this lab, as students compete with others to see whose designs can, given cost constraints, produce the most power.
As with all NOVA Labs, the Energy Lab includes an Educator Guide that can help you think of ways to use the Labs as a productive part of your classroom experience. NOVA Education has also produced a webinar to help walk teachers through the online resource.
All in all, the Energy Lab is a great opportunity for students to use tools provided by NOVA to learn through experience about the challenges of energy production and consumption. Far from being a service taken for granted on a daily basis, NOVA’s Energy Lab helps put energy usage in the foreground for future professionals, a space in which it will need to remain if those future professionals are to solve our looming energy challenges.