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.
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.
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.
When I share random pieces of information I’ve picked up from science blogs or magazines, my friends often get that “if-this-story-lasts-more-than-three-minutes-I’m-leaving” look in their eyes. But there’s one anecdote that they respond to with appreciation, and even envy.
It’s the story of Kim Peek, a savant gifted with the extraordinary ability to scan pages of books two at a time and instantly memorize their entire contents. In many ways, Peek had a difficult life. His unique brain structure stripped him of the ability to interact on the same social plane as most people.
But it’s no wonder my friends sigh with jealousy. To be able to read and remember hundreds of pages of content so effortlessly sounds like a dream come true for most college students.
Even as teachers refresh curriculums and start testing students with questions that require synthesis and originality, the fact remains that any course with tests requires at least a base level of memorization. Even classes that assess students without traditional exams reward those who can remember the most. For example, in discussion-based courses, the students who contribute most effectively are those who can cite relevant examples and draw on outside knowledge to better contextualize conversations.
In the “real world,” memory has its perks too: those who remember more are often better writers and conversationalists, to name two examples.
As college students, my friends and I are eager to take advantage of any technological developments that may make our memorization process as effortless as Peek’s. I was thrilled, for example, when I discovered an application that would allow me to create flashcards on my computer and then quiz myself on my iPhone. That was just one of the many ways I tried to use technology to learn more by doing less. I used Google Documents to collaborate on shared study guides. I read books online and watched YouTube videos that explained scientific concepts. And I searched for resources, like the upcoming NOVA interactive activity on the brain, which allow me to visualize information in new ways.
All of these techniques were helpful. Typing out a 40-page study guide that can be edited online by other students in my class is a lot less painful than writing it by hand or even emailing notes back and forth. And watching a YouTube video that explains the stages of an action potential is more fun than reading an explanation in a textbook.
But none of the technological tools available to me seemed to change—or demystify—my process of remembering. As a student studying cognitive neuroscience, the idea of how my own memory works has always intrigued me; however, even after years of studying, I still barely understand how my mind remembers. Why do I remember that flash card after seeing it four times rather than just three? Why do some facts stick in my memory instantly, while others cause recurring nightmares of a blank mind? Why can I still sing a 30-second jingle I made up to recall a sequence of neurotransmitters but forget most of the words to favorite songs from my summer camp that I have probably sung hundreds of times?
Though I’ve been using new tools to help cram information into my brain, my process of remembering is almost identical to the process I used when I had only paper flash cards and physical books. I read or watch or hear information. I think about it and desperately try to think of a way to connect that information to some logical sequence of facts I can remember. I repeat the process again and again.
Over the past five years or so, technology has dramatically changed the way I study, but I don’t know if it has had any impact on my memory process. Despite my undying love for technology, it has been unable to answer my questions about why and how I remember.
Students of my generation have lived through a technological revolution that has changed the way we think about learning. But how will further advances in science inform education?
The upcoming season of NOVA scienceNOW delves into related questions. The episode “How Smart Can We Get?” ponders the limits of the human brain. “What Will the Future Be Like?” explores fascinating advances in technology that may fundamentally shift the way in which we interact with the world.
These advances suggest that in the future, a lucky generation of students will live through not just a technological revolution that will continue to make learning more exciting, but a biological one that will change the way we think about remembering.
Studies are already revealing fascinating and useful information about our minds, like the extraordinary capacity of our spatial memories or how our recollection of ideas can be improved if we are tested in the same environment in which we learned. Scientists know all about how memories are encoded and retrieved. But I think we have just scratched the surface when it comes to applying this information to practical applications.
People have already created hundreds of memory techniques; one is a mnemonic device called a “memory palace” that involves creating mental images that bring to mind certain facts and then scattering them around a mental picture of a known location (like one’s home). But these techniques are fallible: people still struggle to remember the ideas the mnemonic is supposed to trigger or to correctly visualize the relevant image in their palace.
Imagine how useful it would be to understand why our brains can recall particular ideas and facts at some moments. Imagine not only knowing a certain concept, but also exactly why you know it and why you can recall it. And imagine using this information to develop new ways of thinking and studying.
I am living through a technological revolution that has changed the way my educators and I approach learning. But I can’t help but feel a little jealous of the students of the future, the students who I hope will benefit from enhanced technological developments that have been informed by scientists’ quest to deepen our understanding of the way the human mind works. They won’t all turn into Kim Peeks; however, perhaps if they are gifted with more knowledge about the amazing ways in which their own brain functions, they won’t respond to his story with as much envy.
Study Tools for Your Students:
- Quizlet – This is an extremely useful website that enables users to create online flashcards and test yourself with various games.
- SoundNote – This application enables students to link notes on their iPad with audio recordings of lectures. I haven’t used it, but it seems like it could prove useful, especially for students who have trouble keeping up with fast-talking professors.
- SelfControl – From my perspective, SelfControl is the most used and most needed high-tech study tool in existence, especially for students prone to procrastination (i.e., all students). Users simply type in URLs of distracting websites and set a timer; until it goes off, all forbidden websites are disabled. What’s more, SelfControl is almost unhackable—there is no apparent way to turn it off except for waiting out the clock (and believe me, I have tried).
More About Memory:
- A Scientific American article about the brains of taxi drivers in London who must memorize all of the city streets and landmarks before receiving their cab licenses.
- Joshua Foer’s column on how he trained to compete in the U.S.A. Memory Championship—a feat that requires extraordinary discipline but, surprisingly, no innate mental gift.
- An article in the Guardian about a study that suggests that in many cases, it is poor working memory, not low intelligence, that causes students to struggle in school.