It's the simplest and most important act in science: Observing. So simple a grade-schooler could do it. Yet so important that NASA scientists need and use those students' observations.
Students' Cloud Observations On-Line (S'COOL) enables students all over the world to learn about cloud properties and their role in the atmosphere. Students are also able to participate in valuable atmospheric research as their cloud observations are compared to satellite measurements to help scientists validate their data. Credit: NASA
A NASA Langley program that encourages schoolchildren to look to the sky for science -- and take part in cutting-edge climate research -- has reached the equivalent of its senior year of high school.
After 12 years, the S'COOL program has grown from a few participating schools in NASA Langley's backyard to include 1,004 schools in 54 countries -- on every continent but Antarctica -- that have reported observations. Students observe clouds and the sky from right outside their school buildings and pass on what they see to NASA scientists. Those observations are then used to "ground truth" data about clouds and the Earth's radiant energy from the orbiting Clouds and Earth's Radiant Energy System or CERES instrument.
This Jan. 13, 2009, will mark Global Cloud Observation Day and the 12th anniversary of S'COOL, Students' Cloud Observations On-Line.
Fittingly for a program that is a collaboration between scientists and classroom teachers, S'COOL was born out of a conversation between a scientist and a teacher. Peasley Middle School teacher Eleanor Jones, of Gloucester, Va., was attending an educators conference at NASA Langley Research Center. After lunch she began chatting with Langley climate researcher Lin Chambers.
"We had sit-around time," Jones said. "We were just chit-chatting back and forth about what kids like and don't like about science and how hard it was to get kids to connect to something bigger than the classroom.
"I said, 'If there was just some way these kids could feel connected to climate change and global warming and so forth,' " Jones recalled.
"And Lin said, 'I think I know what we could have them do. We could have them observe clouds.' "
A few months later Peasley students were some of the first to walk outside, look up at the sky at the same time CERES was passing by and write down what they saw. But since then, thousands of middle and high school students have done the same thing to build a giant database of ground-based observations that are used to double-check what the instrument sees from space.
CERES makes important measurements of the radiation entering and leaving Earth's atmosphere. This radiation largely determines the planet's climate. And the role clouds play in influencing climate remains one of the least understood questions in climate science.
While CERES makes mostly accurate measurements of the thickness, size and reflectivity of cloud cover, a second set of eyes helps. That's where student observations become so important. Timed to CERES' path overhead, students' cloud sightings can confirm whether what CERES "saw" was accurate or whether the instrument picked up something that wasn't there.
Student observations show a good agreement with most CERES measurements. But the student records have, from the beginning, also consistently shown that CERES tends to under-detect high-altitude clouds. Researchers would have few ways of knowing that without the students' ground-truthing.
In the classroom, teachers say the program excites their students in a way that textbook learning does not. Joyce Easter, who teaches on an Indian reservation near the Mission Mountains in Montana, said S'COOL allows her students to connect with ongoing research in a way that is otherwise unavailable to them.
"We don't have many scientific things around us. We have majestic mountains. To work with a satellite, that was intriguing," said Easter, whose son, Erik, recently began teaching in Colorado and also began working with S'COOL.
"This is quite a motivational tool and then the fact that you think this is actually gathering some scientific data. That's the reason I use it. They feel like they're a part of something bigger," Joyce Easter said.
Chambers, who heads S'COOL, said the program has been rewarding as a scientist performing research and as a scientist watching children learn.
"From the scientific perspective, it's giving us a completely independent measurement. That is always useful," Chambers said. "But also as a scientist thinking about kids, it's important for them, to follow a protocol and just be aware of their surroundings."