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Snow Day
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.

A girl lies in a pile of fresh show

Urban areas tend to get less snow than nearby rural areas. Image Credit: Microsoft Clipart

Even on the coldest of winter days, the words "snow day" are sure to warm the hearts of school children everywhere. But the number of snow days can vary greatly for kids separated by a relatively short distance. The discrepancy can be particularly significant when comparing warmer urban areas with cooler, outlying communities.

It's a scene that's all too familiar to students from urban school districts. With the potential for snow in the forecast, they wake up to see mostly wet conditions outside their window. Meanwhile, in the suburbs, the ground is covered in white.

Four students at Roswell Kent Middle School in Akron, Ohio, set out to investigate the impact of asphalt -- their suspected culprit in urban warmth -- on the temperature of surrounding grass. The project has earned them and their teacher a June trip to South Africa for an international gathering of students engaged in Earth science.

Now eighth-graders, the students -- Ashley, Katelyn, Julia and Elizabeth -- got the idea for their project when their seventh-grade science teacher, Steven Frantz, complained that the rural area where he lives has more snow days than the city of Akron, where he teaches.

"There have been days when I have not been able to go to school because my county has been shut down [except for] emergency vehicles, but all is well in the city," Frantz said. "For many of my students, really bad winter weather is only something they see on TV, even though it may only be a few miles away."

After developing a research question and hypothesis, the students measured the grass temperature outside their school on five consecutive days, at the same time each day. For comparison, they obtained similar data for six other nearby sites -- including three high schools, one college and an agricultural research center -- with varying land types. Google Earth and aerial photographs were used to determine the percentage of asphalt, natural cover and manmade structures at each location.

The project finished fourth in an Ohio poster competition. The contest was held by SATELLITES, a statewide Earth science education and outreach program developed by OhioView, and Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, an international education program sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation. GLOBE participants -- mainly K-12 students and teachers -- record measurements of the atmosphere, land, water, and plant and animal life for use by students and scientists worldwide.

Inspired by their success at the state level, the girls from Akron turned their poster into a research paper and entered it into a national GLOBE competition. The Roswell Kent team was one of five -- out of approximately 500 submissions -- to be selected by a panel of Earth scientists to attend the 2008 GLOBE Learning Expedition in Cape Town, South Africa. At the expedition, hundreds of GLOBE participants from all over the world will present research and conduct field studies.

To prepare for their trip, the Roswell Kent team is developing an oral presentation. The students will also conduct collaborative research with students from South Africa and will participate in cultural exchange activities.

Four girls stand with their teacher and hold their award certificates

From left to right: Ashley, Katelyn, Elizabeth, Julia, and Steve Frantz (back) are recognized at a recent school board meeting. Image Credit: Steve Frantz

GLOBE is paying for the team's travel, lodging and food. The school's Parent Teacher Association is raising money to buy suitcases and support additional costs. Roswell Kent has a high percentage of students from low-income families and receives financial aid under the federal government's Title I program.

Despite their success, the students have faced challenges along the way. Early on, they discovered that one of the schools took temperature observations on the wrong type of surface. Furthermore, the results only partially supported their hypothesis -- that grass temperatures are affected by the amount of asphalt covering the surrounding area.

More data and a larger sample are needed, the girls concluded. They learned that research sometimes turns up more questions than answers. "We had one question at first, but now we have many different questions," Julia said.

"We learned that science is really never-ending," Elizabeth added. "There (are) always things you can do to (revise your project)."

Frantz says the students' success has prompted an increased interest in GLOBE. The program at Roswell Kent now includes eighth-graders, and Akron Public Schools are considering a district-wide partnership with GLOBE.

"It's pretty exciting to see what four girls have done and the impact that they've made on a whole lot of students that have yet to come up," Frantz said. "As a teacher, that's really exciting for me."

Related Resources
Meet Previous Earth Explorers

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies