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Exploring Earth with EarthKAM

Who are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student wondering how El Niño will affect tomorrow's weather. The scientist studying connections between ozone and climate change. And the farmer using satellite pictures to keep track of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all curious about the Earth system. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Harry Swan sitting at a computer
Harry Swan sitting at a computer
You don't have to be an astronaut to snap a photograph of Earth from space. You don't even have to work for NASA.

Don't believe me?

Then believe Alice Shaw and Harry Swan. These eighth-graders are on the ISS EarthKAM team at Brunswick Junior High School in Brunswick, Maine. ISS stands for "International Space Station."

EarthKAM is a digital camera in the window of the ISS that takes pictures of Earth. Students control the camera and decide what pictures it takes. Then they do projects using the pictures.

"EarthKAM is different from [regular] school subjects because it combines science, math and geography -- and applies it," Shaw said. Shaw is one of more than 30 students on the Brunswick team.

Alice Shaw, Diane Bowen and Ben Hauptman looking at a lithograph
Alice Shaw, Diane Bowen, and Ben Hauptman looking at a lithograph
Diane Bowen is a science teacher at Brunswick. She's in her sixth year running the after-school EarthKAM program there. "The reason I love the project so much is because it affords the students the opportunity to do real science," Bowen said. "How many students can say that they've taken photos of Earth from their own school library?"

Students take pictures using the EarthKAM Web site. First, they request a photograph of a specific area. In doing so, they must consider the track of the ISS, information from maps and atlases, and weather.

Requests are then reviewed by a team of students at the University of California, San Diego. From there, the requests go to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Then they are relayed to the ISS. As EarthKAM passes over the desired area, the picture is taken and sent to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. And finally, the picture is posted on the Internet.

Bowen's students do projects using the pictures they and others request. One of their projects was based on a photograph of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Lithograph of Buenos Aires, Argentina
Lithograph of Buenos Aires, Argentina
"I used to be mystified at how people could make any conclusions from satellite photos," Swan said. "Now I know just how specific the photos can be and I myself have made some deductions from them."

EarthKAM is mainly for middle schoolers. But ninth-grader Evan Pease and 11th-grader Ben Hauptman are still on the Brunswick team. Both of the former Brunswick Junior High School students are now at nearby Brunswick High School. One of Pease's recent projects focused on the history of the High Aswan Dam in Egypt. Right now, he and two other students are studying the geology of Australia.

"It's always interesting to take a picture of something that you are learning about in school," Pease said. "Sometimes when I'm in school and my class is talking about some geographical feature, I think, 'I wonder what that looks like from space?'"

Ben Hauptman and Alice Shaw putting information on a board
Ben Hauptman and Alice Shaw putting information on a board
Hauptman is in his fourth year on the EarthKAM team. He says that EarthKAM also teaches teamwork and leadership. These are important skills that will last a lifetime. "Not only do I learn cool stuff about outer space and our own planet, but also lessons that will help me later on in life," he said. "Everyone's opinion and criticism counts. And everyone has to listen to each other."

Hauptman and his teammates are passing those lessons on to others that are younger, older, and in different parts of the world. For example, on Space Day they teach elementary school children about space and space travel. They also conduct workshops on EarthKAM for teachers.

And they are helping out a new EarthKAM team in Alberta, Canada. The two teams have exchanged information about where they live and met each other over live video. The next EarthKAM mission in May (information below) will be the first for the Canadian team. An Internet chat room will be set up for the Brunswick team to answer questions from the Canadian team during the mission.

EarthKAM photographs are available to anyone through the EarthKAM Web site. The site also explains how teachers can start an EarthKAM team. There are even quizzes and games, like Earth Images Bingo.

Next EarthKAM Mission
The next ISS EarthKAM picture taking mission is scheduled for May 11-14, 2004. Have your teacher register for ISS EarthKAM at

View site:

See previous Earth Explorers articles:

Related Resources
Where is the International Space Station?

Earth as Art

Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies