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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
I honestly don’t remember too much from elementary school, and most of what I can recollect is ill-defined and hazy. There is one experience, though, that I can recall with what seems, at least to me, to be impressive detail.
On a bright day in May of 1994, I was in the third grade, and my teacher, Mr. Nelson, had our class construct a few pinhole cameras. We knew not, back then, what pinhole cameras were, but we knew about disposable cameras (remember those?), and I can recall, for the first part of the lesson, feeling perplexed. The shoeboxes, which served as camera bodies, were quite a bit bigger than Kodak cameras, and I just couldn’t understand why we would make something so big. Still, dutifully, the students constructed five of these contraptions, then trooped outside onto the scorching blacktop. As we gathered around Mr. Nelson, he said, with the excitement characteristic of so many elementary school teachers, “There’s going to be a solar eclipse today!”
It was there that for the first time, my classmates and I looked safely at the sun by peering through the viewfinders of our newly constructed cameras. Of course, in our youthful ignorance, we’d tried before to look at the sun with our naked eyes. I vaguely recall something about a double-dog-dare. But we’d never been able to inspect the sun in such detail as we did that day. That little piece of technology, a re-purposed shoebox, helped us to learn more about solar science and direct observation than we ever had before.
Some eighteen years later, technology has advanced in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and through the magic of the internet, students have access to a few more tools than they did all those years ago in California, circa 1994. The new “Sun Lab” from NOVA Labs is such a tool.
For the Sun Lab’s “Boot Camp”, NOVA has produced 3 media modules, with each module containing 3 short educational videos. With topics like “Sun 101,” “Space Weather,” and “Technology & Discovery,” students can watch the videos to learn the basics of the sun, how we study it, and why our relationship with our home star is so important. At the end of each video, students answer questions to check for understanding.
After gleaning the basics from the 9 short videos, students jump right into the online lab space, using the innovative platform to access the same tools and images that professional scientists use to conduct groundbreaking solar research. Students learn about the solar cycle and our place in it, learn to predict future solar storms, and can even develop and conduct their own solar research project.
The lab includes an Educator Guide that can help you implement the programming in a variety of ways in your classroom. The guide also outlines the ways in which the lab’s content has been designed to align with the Next Generation Science Standards. You can find everything you need to make the Sun Lab a successful part of your classroom experience at the NOVA Labs page.
The last thing that I remember hearing Mr. Nelson say that afternoon in 1994 was that another eclipse wouldn’t be visible from California until 2012. At the time, the year 2012 seemed unbearably, impossibly far away. I tried, for a few moments, to imagine the future, and probably had a far away look in my eyes. I think Mr. Nelson must have seen it, because the next thing he said was, “Maybe some of you will become scientists, and you’ll study that eclipse just like you’re studying this one.”
I didn’t become a scientist exactly, but with the Sun Lab, I’m able to use modern technology to learn and be inspired in just the same way we used to use those shoebox pinhole cameras. If you’re a teacher, check out the Sun Lab, show it to your students, and see if they can’t be inspired to envision a seemingly impossible future, made real by the relentless pursuit of knowledge, the advancement of technology, and also, I suppose, by the simple passage of time.
You’ve seen videos of the “seven minutes of terror” and the first stunning shots of the “Red Planet” taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover. Now you want to bring the excitement of NASA’s most recent Mars mission to your classroom.
Well, there’s good news! There are lots of excellent resources online that will incite creativity, spark imagination, and help your students learn to solve the real-world problems of the future.
Our new program, Ultimate Mars Challenge, provides an overview of all that is Curiosity and the latest deployment, landing, and sample collection technology in space exploration. NOVA goes behind the scenes of NASA’s latest mission to discover the secrets looming on the Red Planet. Viewers can follow along as scientists and engineers grapple with the problems NASA anticipated and the solutions they developed to overcome them, including landing the largest Rover ever on the surface of Mars by lowering it down from a massive sky crane as pictured below. You can watch the show streaming in its entirety online, or purchase a DVD.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Also, check out this video to relive the excitementof the landingalong with the NASA team!
Whatever the plan for the day, chances are you can incorporate some of the exciting new developments from Mars exploration into your lesson that will make classwork both fun for students and relatable to current events. If you’re a math or physics teacher, why not talk about the relative sizes of the planets, or how NASA calculated when to launch the rocket carrying the rover? If you’re an earth sciences or chemistry teacher, your students may be interested in the natural resources available on Mars, the chemical composition of the soil and air (why does Mars appear red?), and how Mars could be made habitable for human life. Even in a social studies class – how might social life and interactions on Mars be different from those on Earth? (Do we still shake hands in spacesuits?) And what kinds of new jobs might there have to be on Mars?
For inspiration, NASA has some excellent ready-made lesson plans for all ages as part of their Imagine Mars Project, co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Each lesson plan incorporates hands-on activities, reflection, discussion and elaboration of new skills and knowledge. In addition, short video clips accompany many lessons. These are perfect for some quick background knowledge presented in a clear, concise, and attention-grabbing way.
My favorite is the Soda Straw Rockets, where students get to make their own paper rockets, then aim and 3…2…1…blast off! at a model of a planetary target. Based on their results, students can make adjustments to the size and shape of their rockets to see if they can make them travel faster, farther, and more accurately. Students use the scientific method to make hypotheses, evaluate their results, and refine their methods.
Alternatively, you could have your students make a short infomercial or informational pamphlet to prepare the first Mars settlers for what they might expect. After all, the first humans to live on Mars might be in for a bit of a shock based on how different life will have to be out there! Each student can play an expert in a particular field, advising newcomers on what they’ll need to survive on their new home. (Don’t forget your ski goggles for those planet-blanketing dust storms. And you may want to pack an extra pair of gloves for when it’s 200-below!)
At Pine Grove Middle School in East Syracuse, NY, eighth grade students already have Curiosity on the mind. Six teachers have teamed up for a trans-disciplinary, project-based curriculum for their 8th grade students, focusing on science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math (S.T.E.A.M.). November marked the beginning of their six-week long ROVER drop project, during which students will design and build robots that will be able to land safely, orient themselves, navigate rough terrain, avoid obstacles, and collect data (temperature and pH) from a body of liquid they find on the surface of “Mars”.
The project works like this: During Phase 1, groups of 4 students follow blueprints to build LEGO Mindstorms robots of increasing complexity. The robots are controlled using ROBOLAB software, which allows students to create programs to perform simple tasks. During Phase 2, the students increase their skill sets while learning to solve increasingly complex problems and work around design issues. During the final phase, groups will join forces with classmates to build and program one ROVER per class to be deployed on the Martian terrain. Each small group will design, build, and program one system for their class’ ROVER. On drop day, each class of 24 students will run Mission Control for their robot, commanding its behavior remotely by running and sending computer programs to an iPod Touch affixed to each rover.
We will be following the development of the project as students simulate the experience of being at JPL, and discover how what they learn in the classroom is used to solve important, real-world problems. You can follow along too on the class Twitter and website linked below, where you can click on <ROVER> to learn more about the project and see daily progress updates. On drop day in January, you’ll be able to watch all of the excitement along with the team on their Mission Control Cam.
If you’re interested in the possibility of life elsewhere on Mars and beyond, don’t forget NOVA’s Education Collection, Finding Life Beyond Earth. Included are lesson plans, video clips, and other resources to bring exciting science to the classroom, and drive your students’ scientific inquiry. In addition, the Education Collection includes a chart of K-8 National Science Education Standards that align with the activities included therein.
If you have incorporated the Mars Curiosity Rover into your lesson plans in a creative way, we’d love to hear from you! Send us an email at NOVAeducation@wgbh.org.
Early in the morning on August 6, NASA’s latest rover successfully touched down on Mars to begin investigating the planet’s habitability. The rover, Curiosity, will use an array of instruments to figure out if the Martian environment was ever able to support microbial life. As Curiosity searches for signs of life on the red planet, you may wonder how you can bring the search for life into your classroom. The NOVA Education team has developed a collection of flexible resources to help you turn this exciting space mission into a teachable moment for your students.
In October 2011, NOVA premiered a two-hour special called “Finding Life Beyond Earth.” The program explores some of the dynamic environments found on other planets and moons that have helped scientists expand their ideas of what kind of worlds could support life. Using adapted NASA activities, NOVA Education developed a collection of resources based on the program with seven hands-on activities that explore questions at the heart of the search for extraterrestrial life, such as: What are the characteristics of life? Which planets and moons in the solar system are potentially habitable? How do scientists search for life in our solar system and beyond? The activities are designed to be extremely flexible—educators can mix and match them to help kids understand the biology, physical science, technology, and Earth and space science related to the search for life beyond Earth. Video clips accompany most of the activities to help visually support the concepts students will explore. We have also provided PowerPoint presentation slides that complement each activity in the collection to help assist with the flow of a lesson and further engage students in the subject matter. Each core activity takes between 15 and 30 minutes to complete; however, if you don’t teach in a conventional classroom setting, we’ve also adapted each activity into a shorter, condensed cart version that can be used in museum or event settings.
The NOVA Education team took these resources to the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, DC, to share one of our favorite activities, “Home Sweet Home.” Kids were given a “Creature” card describing one of six possible planetary environments and asked to invent a creature that could thrive in the conditions outlined on the card. The goal of the activity was to introduce kids to the factors to consider when thinking about the habitability of planets: Is there food to eat, gas to breathe, a comfortable temperature, and a way to move? The take-home message is that living things develop so that they can survive in a particular environment. A variety of materials were provided to help kids design their creatures—neon straws, beads, googly eyes, glitter glue, aluminum foil, bubble wrap, popsicle sticks, markers, crayons, construction paper, and more. I was impressed with how creative kids were in their use of these materials. Bubble wrap became a layer of insulation for creatures living in extremely cold environments; straws gave creatures special suction power to breathe gas; and aluminum foil created strong, metallic teeth that creatures could eat rocks with.
@ 2012 WGBH Educational Foundation
This is just one example of how to engage your students in the search for life. You can find the full “Finding Life Beyond Earth” Education Collection and the accompanying video excerpts here on our website. We would love to hear how you use these resources in your classroom. Join our educator community on Facebook and tell us what worked for you!
When NASA selected the first civilian to travel into space, it wasn’t a rock star or a journalist—it was a teacher. January 28, 2011 is the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, when seven explorers lost their lives doing something that they believed in. On January 28, 1986, I was a sixth grade student, and I’ll never forget the immediate silence that fell over my middle school cafeteria when the principal announced the event over the PA system during lunch. We all filed back to our classrooms to watch the television coverage for the rest of the school day.
Christa’s Portrait — Image from NASA
That event solidified in me what had been a growing desire that began when I was four years old and watched Carl Sagan champion the need to explore the stars in his Cosmos series. Ten years after Challenger, I graduated from college with a degree in Physics and Astronomy and took my first job teaching high school in the Bronx. I learned more science that first year of teaching, and found more inspiration trying to help my students’ explore their own questions, than I had ever considered possible.
In the wake of September 11, 2001, NASA reached out to New York City students and offered 52 student experiment modules that would travel on a Space Shuttle mission. I found myself working with a group of NYC middle school students to help them develop their own collection of experiments that we would pack and send off to be launched into space. The Space Shuttle became our classroom. As we watched the Space Shuttle carry our experiments into orbit on January 16, 2003, I finally felt like I was playing a small role in space exploration. This was mission STS-107, and it tragically would be the last flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated on reentry into the atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.
As I faced the loss of another Space Shuttle, I found myself on the other side of sixth grade. Now responsible for helping a large group of sixth graders try to understand the enormity of what had happened, I reconnected with my Challenger experience. I found new inspiration in the words of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, NH who was one of the seven crew members lost on Challenger—“I touch the future. I teach.”