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Turtles, Dolphins and Seals, Oh My!

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.

Picture of a harp seal swimming upside down in a deep blue ocean
Arty has a lot of young fans out there. The most enthusiastic ones are middle and high school kids. Some can barely go a day without following his every move.

Image to right: Satellites track harp seals and other animals making their spring migration. Credit: Signals of Spring

No, Arty is not a TV show character or the latest craze in talking stuffed animals. He is a harp seal making his way through the Gulf of St. Lawrence. And students around the country can't get enough of him.

The seventh- and eighth-graders at Ann Street School are no exception. Ann Street is a city school in Newark, N.J. It has students from many different backgrounds. They are hot on the trail of harp seals and other marine and land species all over the world. This is all part of the NASA-sponsored Signals of Spring program.

How can so many animals be followed at once? Each animal has been fitted with a small transmitter that sends out a signal. The signal helps satellites in space figure out the animal's location. That data is then displayed on maps that students access over the Internet.

Students do more than just follow the animals. They also try to predict and explain their movement. They do this by looking at various kinds of online maps. For example, a weather map might help explain why a bird flew in a certain direction. Or a map of water temperatures might show why a dolphin slowed down.

Students study Arty's route map with their teacher
With so much work done in front of the computer, it's easy to forget that the animals are real. That's why Ann Street seventh-graders take a field trip each year before starting Signals of Spring. They ride a boat along a nearby river and look for bald eagles. Later, students can think back to when they saw the eagles in their natural setting. It reminds them that the animals they're tracking on computer are real.

Image to left: Students used many types of maps to track marine and land animals. Credit: Ann Street School

The hard work begins when the Signals of Spring animals start their spring migration. Students are grouped into "expert" teams. Each team focuses on a different factor that might affect where and how fast an animal moves. Animals tracked include seals, eagles, turtles, dolphins, swans and more.

Carmen Salgueiro is the vice principal of Ann Street. She says that Signals of Spring gives students a chance to do science, not just learn about it.

"It's an application of science and technology," she said.

At the end of the project, students present their work in a variety of formats. Some write research papers. Others write children's books, make videos or perform skits.

A large map with a harp seal pictured on top
"Each kid is allowed to pursue his [or her] own creativity," said Manny Oliveira, a science teacher at Ann Street.

Image to right: This map shows all the places Arty has been. Credit: Signals of Spring

The students do more than just explain their findings in front of the class. They also present their work to scientists and to teachers at other schools. Sometimes they even travel to conferences and workshops. Also, Ann Street students have twice won a NASA science contest with their Signals of Spring projects. The contest is called the "NASA Student Involvement Program."

Oliveira says the best prize for students is the sense of accomplishment they feel.

"They can see that, 'Hey... I'm doing what a meteorologist is doing on TV -- predicting what's going to happen tomorrow," he said. "They feel, 'Wow, you don't need to be [an adult] to do this.'"

See previous Earth Explorers articles:
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Related Resources
Signals of Spring
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The Space Place: Migration Concentration
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies