Student Features

Text Size

Signs of Science

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.

A teacher signs to students as she stands in front of a rock formation
How do you like to learn about Earth? Would you rather put your foot in a dinosaur print than look at a picture of one? Would you rather touch volcanic rock than read about it in a book? Most students learn more by seeing and doing. This is especially true for those who learn with their eyes more so than their ears.

Image to right: University of Massachusetts Amherst geologist Michele Cooke uses sign language to describe how tectonic forces deformed and folded rocks along a Massachusetts highway. Credit: Mary Ellsworth

Teresa Huckleberry and Mary Ellsworth teach high school students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Both teachers say their students learn best through visual and hands-on activities. Recently, Huckleberry and Ellsworth took their students on a five-day field trip. The students got an up close look at Earth's geology.

Teacher Teresa Huckleberry
"It is important that students learn to do science, not just read about it in a book," Huckleberry said.

Reading and writing English is not always easy for people who are deaf. Difficulties can arise because their first language -- American Sign Language -- is not a direct translation of English. Sign language has its own structure, grammar and other rules. So, reading English can be a bit like reading a foreign language.

Image to left: Teresa Huckleberry teaches at the Indiana School for the Deaf. Credit: Teresa Huckleberry

However, it turns out that sign language lends itself quite well to explaining Earth science. In some ways, it's easier to explain three-dimensional concepts with one's hands than with the spoken or written word!

"Sign language makes use of three-dimensional space in a different way than verbal language does," Ellsworth said. "Deaf students may be particularly adept at using this visual information."

Related Resources
+ Deaf Women and Men in Science


+ Previous Earth Explorers Articles
Hearing and deaf students can learn from each other. Every year, Huckleberry teams her deaf students with hearing students from a nearby school. Together, they go for a week to NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

As part of the trip, the students go scuba diving off the coast of Florida. Being underwater simulates the low gravity of space. They also meet NASA divers. The divers explain how they retrieve solid rocket boosters from the ocean. These are the rockets that separate from the space shuttle shortly after launch.

Of course, not every day can be a field trip. In the classroom, both teachers use NASA activities to teach Earth science. One such activity is the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment Project. Students who take part in GLOBE measure the air, land, water, and plant and animal life. Then, using the Internet, they share their data with students and scientists around the world.

Two students look on as a student waters plants growing in a plant growth chamber
Huckleberry's students also work with a plant growth chamber. The plant growth chamber was developed by a company working with NASA. The students grow lettuce and miniature tomatoes. Their project models the ability to grow plants in space.

Image to left: Huckleberry's students water plants in a plant growth chamber. Credit: Teresa Huckleberry

Technology is another key learning tool. Ellsworth created a Web site for deaf students to learn Earth system science and share pictures and data. The site also lets students discuss Earth science with each other online.

Ellsworth also runs the "Deaf Women and Men in Science" Web site. This site features deaf scientists of the past and present. It encourages students to learn and write reports about them. Students can search for deaf scientists by state or field of interest. It's encouraging for students who are deaf to learn about others like themselves who have done well in science.

Mary Ellsworth poses holding books
Role models are important for everyone, not just the deaf. All students need someone to look up to, an example to follow.

Image to right: Mary Ellsworth teaches high school students and has developed science Web sites especially for deaf students. Credit: John Consoli, Gallaudet University

"My students are normal teenagers with normal growing pains," Huckleberry said.

The challenges of learning science are similar, whether a student can or cannot hear.
Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies