Understanding Earth Starts With STEM
When Claire Parkinson was growing up, she did not know she would become an earth scientist. Yet one day she found herself on an airplane heading to one of the wildest places on Earth: Antarctica. Almost 40 years later, she says that there is a lot left to learn about the planet.
Parkinson has been a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., since 1978. She uses satellite data to learn about sea ice and the role it plays in the polar climate. To understand all of this better, she has traveled to the cold shores of Antarctica and the Arctic.
Scientists study sea ice to learn about Earth's past and present. For example, the white sea ice covers reflect a lot of sunlight back to space. Scientists measure how much sea ice covers are changing to figure out how this is affecting the climate at the poles.
Parkinson knows it can be difficult to draw conclusions from sea ice and other data. That's because the Earth system is so complicated. She says her background in mathematics helps her think through problems logically. Still, Parkinson says that in the future, scientists probably will discover that much of what we think we know about Earth today may be wrong. Instead of letting this frustrate her, she sees this as an opportunity. "There is a great deal left for future scientists to do," she says.
Parkinson says that many of those scientists can and should be women. At one time, it was "extremely unusual" for women to participate in polar expeditions, but now she finds that the number of men and women on research trips like the one she took to Antarctica are about the same.
Women simply have more opportunities than before, and so Parkinson advises girls to ignore those who say that mathematics and science are not right for them. She believes girls should focus on enjoying and learning to use mathematics and science. They can draw inspiration from all the women who are respected members of the scientific community.
Parkinson urges both girls and boys to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. "A solid STEM background will open doors for them," she says. It will allow them to help the environment and "increase the understanding of the world around us."
For example, they can help teach others about Earth's climate and how it changes. This can be hard sometimes because we still do not know many things about our planet's climate. Sharing information also can be difficult because many of the things people hear about climate may not be based on science.
So, how can we make the best decisions to take care of the environment? Parkinson says we must learn more about how Earth works and how humans impact the planet. Going into the STEM fields is a good first step to finding those answers.
Who knows? One day you may find yourself becoming an earth scientist too!
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Laura Delgado López/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies