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.
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.
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.”
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.
Even though it was 1:30 in the morning, about 1,000 people gathered in Times Square, August 6th , to stare up at a 53-foot LED screen. Having lived in New York City for many years, I know there are always lots of people in Times Square. And getting them to stop and watch—or even to notice anything—would be a big deal. But here they were, adults and children, their mouths agape and eyes fixed in suspense, looking up at that giant screen. What was it that so captivated them and many others around the globe? Some wild publicity stunt? The trailer for a new blockbuster movie? No. They had gathered to peer into NASA’s Mission Control Center as the rover Curiosity landed on Mars. Reminiscent of the Apollo 11 moon landing, watched by 500 million people worldwide some 43 years ago, these people were here to witness human exploration in real time. Many of these enthralled viewers were kids, given a late-night reprieve to watch history being made on a neighboring body in our solar system. While the grainy black-and-white TV sets may have been replaced by high-definition LED screens, iPads, or even smartphones, the looks on peoples’ faces and their excitement as the car-sized robotic explorer touched down on Mars have not changed over the decades. The scene made me think: How will the story of the Curiosity rover influence this audience and all the others watching worldwide?
I have talked with many NASA scientists and engineers over the past decade, and I have learned that watching events—like the Curiosity landing—played a critical role in inspiring them to pursue their career path. They were engaged by these powerful stories and found ways to get involved and contribute.
Children examining a model of MER at JPL. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Tony Greicius
It’s clear that events like these play an important role in inspiring our youth, which makes it all the more crucial that the story of the event is told well. During the Apollo missions, people observed the Moon through telescopes. Now, we have new technologies that let us learn more about these important events, and also allow us to tell an even more compelling story. Besides the availability of online telescopes controlled via the Internet, the Curiosity rover has its own Twitter account and an interactive 3D rover simulation that allows you to track it online. We can “see” Curiosity land through a computer simulation that looks, for all intents, like a video game of Mars. This is no game, though. Data is being accumulated at record pace. The exciting part is that we can access data like never before, it’s real, and there is a lot of it!
So what do these new methods of storytelling and changing technologies have to do with teaching? Everything. Each lesson unfolds as a story—you determine your message (the concept you wish to teach). Each inquiry or lab is a mission to find a solution or test a hypothesis. And we know from educational research that our students learn socially and would prefer to work in teams, just like those large teams that we see in every NASA Mission Control scene.
Of course, we can’t land a rover in our classrooms every day, but we can tell great stories, give our students a sense of mission, and the pathways to extend their engagement and support their interests. The developments in scientific fields are having an impact on how we can and should be teaching STEM subjects. A quick look at the newly released framework for the upcoming Next Generation Science Standards (to be released in 2013) is a good place to get a sense of what these changes can be.
NOVA Education is also working to innovate our own STEM Resources so that educators can better support these new modes of teaching. Our print resources have shifted to media and digital formats, searchable by topic and aligned with standards on the NOVA Education website. Social media allows us to grow our community and connect directly with you through our Facebook page and Twitter feeds.
The tools might change from decade to decade, yet the core story remains one of science and exploration. This is what NOVA is all about. Next year, we turn 40. Maybe NOVA inspired you along the way, as it did me. I watched it as a child, taught with it for many years in my classroom, and now work with a great team on the mission to become NOVA’s new Education Department. We hope you will join and participate in our community and along the way, find resources and PD that help you in every mission you face in your classroom.