Sunday, March 20, 2011

Observing Clouds for NASA Becomes a Class Tradition

Attending homecoming games, purchasing class rings, and wearing school colors are a few common traditions students pass down. A not-so-common class tradition? Validating NASA satellites.

For over 10 years, Gary Popiolkowski's seventh grade students at Chartiers-Houston Jr./Sr. High School in Houston, Pa. have carried on the tradition of sending cloud observations to NASA to help scientists make sure satellites are identifying clouds correctly.

Popiolkowski's seventh graders are participants in Students' Cloud Observations On-Line (S'COOL), a program based out of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., that allows students from around the world to coordinate their observations with the time a NASA satellite will be observing clouds over their school.

"After doing this for so many years, my students have really bought into being diligent observers and pass that tradition on from year to year," says Popiolkowski.

So diligent that S'COOL recently named this class the top observers for the program, completing 63 observations that match a satellite overpass during a one-month period.

"Gary's class is achieving really remarkable feats," says Lin Chambers, a research scientist at NASA Langley who runs the S'COOL program. "Given that there are four opportunities in a 24-hour period, some of which are in the middle of the night, they observed for more than half of them."

The four satellites students can use to complete cloud observations are Terra, which usually passes over a given area in the morning, and Aqua, CloudSat and CALIPSO (Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations), which generally come by in the afternoon.

Popiolkowski explains that students voluntarily record cloud observations after school in the evenings, and they also take turns signing up to observe clouds over the weekend.

"Students have to make their observations within 15 minutes of a satellite overpass, because clouds change on the timescale of minutes," explains Chambers.

According to Popiolkowski, the quick changes in clouds and the process of cloud formation are some of the local standards of learning with which the S'COOL program aligns.

"S'COOL also reinforces information on the water cycle, forecasting, and how scientists use data and dichotomous keys," says Popiolkowski. One of those keys is a tool on the S'COOL site developed to help students classify clouds when they are making their observations. Once students have identified the clouds in their area, they upload their data to the S'COOL website.

"Students from the previous year, now in eighth grade, volunteer to come to my room and upload the observations from the seventh graders," says Popiolkowski. "Near the end of the year, the eighth graders also train the seventh graders to make sure they know how to get the monthly satellite pass over information, how to correctly put in our observations and then look at and interpret the matches sent to us from the S'COOL scientists."

The matches sent to students from the S'COOL team are notifications that their observations successfully lined up with a satellite overpass. The class can then retrieve the satellite information and assess how well their observations align with NASA's.

Recently, Popiolkowski's class has also been offering comments and feedback to the S'COOL team on ways to improve the satellite matching process for seventh graders.

"It's wonderful to have their perspective," says Susan Moore, the outreach coordinator for S'COOL. "We want to make sure they are getting as much out of the experience as possible."

Popiolkowski is also working on a journal article with Moore about using authentic data collection projects, like S'COOL, to enhance problem-based learning. "We are writing the article because we believe problem-based learning creates life long learners," says Moore. "We see students as researchers."

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