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Delaney's Digital World
Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student questioning if El Niño occurs anywhere besides the Pacific Ocean. The researcher investigating connections between Arctic ozone depletion and global climate change. The citizen scientist interested in how changing land cover and use affects animal migration patterns. And the businessperson projecting future needs for harvest, delivery and storage of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all connected by their curiosity about Earth system processes. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with a variety of backgrounds and interests.

Marci Delaney poses with cartoon drawings of Earth and the moon

Marci Delaney hosts a video that teaches proportion to find the size of the moon. The video stars Wall-E and is available on the NASA Web site. Image Credit: NASA

Marcianna Delaney leads a tech-savvy NASA team that uses cutting-edge videoconferencing to teach science to students across the country. The team is building a state-of-the-art digital classroom complete with an interactive whiteboard and a set of iPod Touches.

Despite the educational advantages made possible by modern technology, Delaney says the biggest challenge today's educators face in teaching Earth and space science may be a concept as ancient as science itself: the scientific method. Delaney blames tight school calendars, the demands of state assessments and a lack of research experience for limiting the time and ability teachers have to teach the scientific method.

"Earth and space scientists are always making new discoveries," Delaney said. "We want students to understand how we do that job. It all leads back to the scientific method."

Delaney and her team at the Digital Learning Network, or DLN, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., educate students and teachers about the scientific method and a host of other Earth and space science topics. The group connects with classrooms nationwide via videoconference and webcasts.

Disney/Pixar's WALL-E robot hosts one of the DLN lessons. WALL-E helps teach about the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA's satellite mission to the moon. Delaney played an integral role in securing the use of the robot in the DLN episode, which includes a hands-on activity about LIDAR, which stands for "Light Detection and Ranging." LIDAR is a technology that uses lasers to calculate the distance to an object or surface. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is using LIDAR to map the topography of the moon.

"I believe technology actually has made Earth and space science more tangible to these digital students. They can manipulate three-dimensional models on a computer. They can see satellite data in real time and download it for their own use," Delaney said. "Today's technology truly has allowed students to become encompassed in project-based learning."

By allowing students to become more involved in science learning, technology is helping students overcome what Delaney says is their biggest challenge -- getting past the notion that science is hard.

"Science is fun. Science is everywhere. Science allows us to satisfy our endless curiosity. Science is meant for everyone. Girls are allowed in this club," Delaney said. "(The) only way students of today can overcome this challenge is to believe it is possible."

Marci Delaney talks with students on a tv screen

Marci Delaney interacts with students during a teleconference. Events like this one allow teachers to use technology to bring NASA into the classroom. Image Credit: NASA

Delaney remembers the moment when she realized she wanted to become a scientist -- she was 13, cruising along the Maine coast on a boat owned by family friends. "I sat on the bow of that boat while sailing through Penobscot Bay and witnessed some of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen," Delaney said. "That was it. I wanted to be a marine biologist."

With the support of her father, a former astrophysicist, and a physicist friend who acted as her mentor, Delaney received a bachelor's degree in marine biology with a concentration in physics from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She earned a master's degree and a doctorate in biological oceanography from Canada's Memorial University of Newfoundland.

These days, Delaney's role with the Goddard education office has her excited about the innovative and interactive ways in which technology is bringing science to classrooms. And as Delaney and her team use tools such as videoconferencing to give students and teachers a taste of NASA science, the NASA group also learns valuable lessons from the teachers on the other side of the screen.

"For example, I was teaching a class via videoconferencing, and the teacher loaded up our worksheets onto her interactive white board," Delaney said. "I could watch these students enter all their data on that whiteboard. The teacher used her hands to shrink down the data sheet and move it to the side of the board and loaded up a graph sheet. Another student came up and plotted the data and drew the graph. The teacher then asked me, 'Would you like me to send this to you?' She saved the worksheets and e-mailed them to me that day.

"That is being tremendously innovative in the classroom."

Related Resources
Goddard DLN   →
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
Wall-E Learns About Proportion Video
Scientific Method
Meet the Next Earth Explorers

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies