Teacher Preparation

Satellite Hookup

By Laura Lang — May 01, 2003 20 min read
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A partnership between NASA and a Maryland school district has produced what some are calling a revolutionary earth science course.

Getting into the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, isn’t easy. Security has always been tight at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration complex, where employees have designed, built, and now operate more than 200 Earth-orbiting satellites. But today, there’s more tension than usual. The national threat level for terrorism is set at orange, or high. And it was just 10 days ago, on February 1, that the space shuttle Columbia blew apart over Texas.

Security guards man the front gate to ensure that visitors are U.S. citizens who have both security clearance and identification badges. Once inside, they’re prohibited from wandering among the mostly squat brick buildings surrounded by a perimeter of trees. In fact, maps of the area are intentionally vague, one NASA employee says, to conceal some of the more sensitive goings-on.

As sunlight breaks through the gray clouds, a guard stationed at an intersection waves 20 men and womentoward Building 26, a bland, boxlike structure that looks more like a haven for doctors’ offices than for top-secret government work. The interior, too, doesn’t appear to have changed much since the building was constructed in the 1960s. The visitors head up the stairs to a second-floor conference room decorated with wood paneling, brown carpet, and aging ceiling tiles.

The equipment inside the room, however, is cutting-edge. During presentations over the next several hours, scientists will use laptops connected to a projector that displays satellite images and NASA Web pages on a screen spanning nearly an entire wall. One of the scientists is James Lochner, who specializes in astrophysics. Dressed in an argyle sweater and large, round glasses, he has a boyish face and the energy to match. He’s come to talk with science teachers from nearby Anne Arundel County about the life cycles of stars so that they can take the information back to their classrooms. But first, a little humor.

“OK, joke time,” Lochner says. “Two hydrogen atoms are walking down the street. The first atom bumps into the second atom, and the first one says to the second, ‘Oh, are you hurt?’

“‘No,’ says the second atom, ‘but I think I lost an electron.’

“‘Are you sure?’ asks the first atom.

“‘I’m positive,’ says the second.”

Lochner smiles. Then, after a brief pause, the room erupts with laughter.

It’s not every day that a NASA scientist entertains a roomful of high school teachers, but then again, this isn’t a typical get-together. Since 1998, Goddard and the 75,000-student county district—located halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.—have been partners in a program that makes earth science, for so long considered an antiquated subject, relevant.

Most high schools nationwide don’t demand that students take the subject, offering specialized electives such as oceanography and astronomy instead. Overshadowed by biology, physics, and chemistry, the classic college prerequisites, earth science is “the sometimes science,” according to Ed Geary, director of the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education at Colorado State University: Sometimes teachers teach it, sometimes students take it, but no one is excited about it.

In the mid-1990s, however, two respected organizations—the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council—published their own sets of science education standards that, in essence, urge schools to offer earth science as a core subject at all grade levels. The standards were prompted in part by the practices of professional scientists, who for more than a decade had been studying Earth as a system, not a set of disparate parts. Much of their data comes from satellites that observe various elements, like weather and ocean currents, and can be used to document how each affects the others.

“It’s not the old bang-on-rocks-and-identify-your-minerals. Now we’re studying Earth from space,” says Michael Smith, director of education at the American Geological Institute in Alexandria, Virginia. “The teaching of earth science is sort of out of sync with the way earth science is being done by scientists.”

The exception is the Anne Arundel program, which Geary considers one of the first in a “revolution” that he and other educators are trying to promote nationwide. Instead of quizzing students on book lessons, they recommend that earth science teachers make use of the same resourcesas scientists, such as the Internet and satellite data. They also advocate hands-on activities in which students use the data to analyze real-world problems and crises.

In an era of tight budgets and standardization, however, districts have been slow to sign on. And the conventional view of earth science as a lightweight course selection—one that, presumably, is not lab-intensive—extends to the college level, where many admissions offices remain unimpressed. So this shift in culture, in considering earth science not only a vital study but also a comprehensive one, may very well depend on the success of programs like the one in Anne Arundel.

‘This is day two of ‘Hurricane Week,’” Neill Russell announces to his class on a chilly November day. The50-year-old Annapolis High School science teacher is one of the Anne Arundel employees who will visit Goddard in February to update his training; but at the moment, he’s using tools and materials shared at the space center in summer 2000. Russell is a tall man with thinning brown hair and a strip of mustache. Partial to earth tones in his wardrobe, he’s the sort of guy who’s genuinely excited about the latest scientific discoveries. He uses words like “cool” awkwardly and, at first glance, doesn’t seem like someone who could relate well to teenagers.

Standing at the front of the classroom, he is flanked by two television sets. He’s using one to show clips from the film The Perfect Storm, the other to display impressive satellite images, via computer, of Hurricane Floyd, which battered the Atlantic coast in September 1999. Downloaded from a NASA Web site, the images were captured by the agency’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, which is also administered by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. They show a tightly coiled mass of clouds stalking the southeastern states. Russell strikes a few buttons on his keyboard to translate the images into infrared pictures, also produced by GOES; the storm’s eye is now a red circle surrounded by spinning patches of yellow and green. “Floyd was a gorgeous hurricane,” Russell marvels.

‘With all our other teachers, we do book work....I never liked science, but I like it now.’

Demetra Baden,
ESSS Student

Next, he divides his class of 26 sophomores, juniors, and seniors, sending half the students to a bank of computers to view his latest PowerPoint presentation on hurricanes. He introduces the other half to the next classroom project. “Here’s the scenario,” he says, handing each student a packet.

“You are the hurricane expert for the city of New Orleans,” reads the front page. It goes on to explain that, during the next few classes, they will compare the satellite images of a hurricane on their computers with the packet’s daily weather maps. The goal: Determine how the on-screen storm will affect the Louisiana coastline.

“You are the one making decisions,” Russell says in an urgent tone. “You have to make sure what you say is really going to happen, happens. That’s how accurate you have to be.”

The assignment is indicative of the new earth science model. Russell isn’t lecturing, in this case, about Hurricane Georges and the path it blazed across the southern coastline in 1998. Instead, he’s providing raw data and encouraging students to determine the real-world impact. “What’s going on in Anne Arundel County is hopefully a harbinger of things to happen around the rest ofthe country,” says Carl Katsu, a teacher at Fairfield Area High School in Pennsylvania and president of the National Earth Science TeachersAssociation.

Russell’s lesson is also the sort of thing district administrators had in mind when they devised the new program in 1998, after learning that the Maryland State Department of Education’s new “core learning goals” encourage high schoolers to study comprehensive earth and space science. At the time, some schools offered classes that “looked at how an earthquake happened, but not how an earthquake might affect life on Earth or what would happen to the atmosphere,” recalls Rochelle Slutskin, the county’s science coordinator. “It was very self-contained.”

Fortunately, Slutskin had a qualified neighbor she could call for help. “I was a new coordinator and didn’t know what to do,” she says. “Goddard was right in our backyard. I went there thinking, NASA works with space; at least they’ll be able to help me with that one part.”

NASA, in fact, would do much more. Robert Gabrys, an education officer at Goddard, happened to be a former Maryland assistant superintendent, so he was familiar with the state’s new learning goals. He also knew that his co-workers would be eager to share their know-how. After collaborating for nearly a year, 15 teachers, administrators, and NASA scientists came up with Earth/Space Systems Science, a cumbersome title reflecting the yearlong course’s all-inclusive nature. Five of the county’s high schools offered ESSS to 10th, 11th, and 12th graders during its inaugural year, in fall 1999. By fall 2003, Slutskin says, all 12 high schools will be participating. Gabrys and his colleagues are also working with a handful of other Maryland districts to develop similar courses. And, on the Goddard Web site, the space center has made the new curriculum available to districts nationwide.

In the meantime, the ESSS course at Annapolis High seems to have captivated students. When the school first offered the course in 1999, only two periods were available to the teenagers, who can take ESSS to fulfill one of three required science courses. The classes filled quickly. Now, six periods are offered, and the school plans to add more, according to Anthony Anzalone, chairman of the guidance department.

At the end of today’s hurricane lesson, juniors Myleka Simmons and Demetra Baden huddle around a computer and navigate their way through Russell’s PowerPoint presentation. The two 16-year-olds gossiped and giggled with each other before the start of class, but as the lesson began, they turned serious. Myleka says she’s enjoyed using satellite images. During one lesson, Russell showed them how to find an image of Anne Arundel County, then zoom in to pinpoint specific locales. “You could see where the Annapolis mall is,” she says.

Demetra appreciated, in particular, an assignment in which students created their own PowerPoint presentations. She used the Internet to compile photos and other research material about the greenhouse effect. “I can say it’s something I did on my own,” she says. “With all our other teachers, we do book work....I never liked science, but I like it now.”

When NASA and Anne Arundel set their sights on the new course, they wanted to make sure the curriculum stayed fresh. So they developed ongoing relationships among the principal players. Four times a year, teachers travel either to Goddard or to a field site for voluntary daylong workshops. The space center also provides a two-week summer training session for new teachers and some veterans. Topics include weather patterns, the evolution of the solar system, and the Earth-sun connection. And, always, correlations are shown—for instance, the moon’s effect on tides, or the impact that human consumption has on the planet and its resources.

Jim Thieman is one of the scientists who, during daylong training sessions at Goddard, update Anne Arundel teachers about how the sun, stars, and weather patterns influence Earth.
—Photograph by David Kidd

Today’s session, on February 11, starts on a solemn note—a moment of silence for the Columbia crew members and their families. After a few introductory remarks by Robert Gabrys, scientist Jim Thieman walks to the front of the room. He’s a soft-spoken, easygoing guy with thinning blond hair and glasses. A few pens peek from the pocket of his button-down striped shirt as he uses a laptop computer to display images of the sun on the wall-size screen. Thieman’s specialty is studying solar activity and the effects it has on Earth’s atmosphere. In many of his pictures, taken from satellites, the sun is a gorgeous, fiery ball of swirling plasma.

From the satellite known as SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) comes an ultraviolet image that looks like a circle of hot coals, some burning bright white, some orange, others shades of red. Scientists use pictures like these to detect solar activity, often indicated by visible sunspots, Thieman explains. In one image, a spot appears to be no more then a fleck on the solar surface, but “it’s really the size of the state of Texas,” hereveals.

He turns to his audience, which stares silently at the images. Perhaps mistaking the teachers’ sense of awe for a lack of interest, Thieman says, “I’m going to start asking questions if I don’t get any. I don’t want anyone falling asleep.”

Neill Russell raises his hand. “To get to the nitty-gritty,” he says, “what type of gas or matter is in the sunspot? These are the kinds of questions kids would ask.”

“You ask a good question,” Thieman replies. Sunspots, he explains, are areas of cooled plasma where magnetic field activity can disrupt the sun’s surface, causing explosions known as solar flares or coronal mass ejections. During these explosions, matter can erupt from the sun’s surface and hurtle toward Earth; this “space weather” causes vivid auroras in the sky and sometimes interferes with satellite and radio communications.

Russell seems satisfied, but Thieman’s presentation is not just informative. Later today, he and his Goddard colleagues will give teachers tools they can use in their classrooms, including posters and CD-ROMs featuring images Thieman has been displaying.

Collaboration between teachers and scientists is one of the recommendations that many educators, including Ed Geary at the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education, made two years ago during an earth science conference in Snowmass, Colorado. The Anne Arundel program, he says, takes “an approach that models what we’re proposing most schools do.”

The growth of such programs, however, has been sporadic. Even though the National Research Council’s suggested guidelines were released in 1996, the American Geological Institute is just beginning to compile statistics on earth science programs nationwide. One notable effort is taking place out West, where the California Science Teachers Association has built a statewide alliance of educators and other professionals that promotes earth science in schools. CSTA President Dick Filson says instruction in California has increased during the past decade, particularly in elementary schools. On a national level, the American Meteorological Society and the National Science Foundation have begun programs that help train teachers in the discipline.

But the biggest roadblock is higher education. Many colleges and universities refuse to accept earth science as one of the laboratory courses required for admission. A case in point: Administrators at the Randolph-Macon Academy in Front Royal, Virginia, were stunned three years ago when a few of their students received rejection letters stating the school’s new earth science course was unacceptable. The teenagers were able to take summer classes to gain admission to the colleges, but the 425-student military prep school dropped the course in question and replaced it with environmental science. “It was our wake-up call to make sure it didn’t happen again,” says Colonel Judy Delaney, the school’s assistant dean.

Changing perceptions at the college level is a priority, Geary acknowledges, arguing that an updated course like the one in Anne Arundel—which provides rigorous, computer-based, hands-onactivities—should meet admission requirements. In fact, the CSTA has convinced the University of California to accept some earth science credits, Filson says.

Back at Goddard, astronomer Sten Odenwald shows the Anne Arundel teachers how to make and use a “soda-bottle magnetometer.” What your students would do, he says, is shine a light at the small mirror affixed to an index card, which is attached to a magnet and literally hanging by a thread inside a 2-liter plastic bottle. They’d then map the light’s reflection on a piece of paper taped to the opposite wall and evaluate its movements to detect disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field. Among those disturbances is the space weather Thieman discussed earlier, and it’s capable of disrupting everything from cell phone use to the flow of electricity.

During a break, Susan Shepherd, a teacher at Old Mill High School in Millersville, Maryland, says that along with the practical tips she receives at these sessions, the spirit of collaboration is satisfying. “You can talk to the other teachers and see what works and what doesn’t work [in their classrooms],” she explains.

Russell is more effusive. He anxiously awaits these trips to Goddard, where he’s indulged with exciting new material. “To me,” he says, “it’s like going to Disneyland.”

The day after the Goddard visit, Michael Wasserberger, an Annapolis High junior with curly hair and a wide smile, admits that he, too, is enthusiastic about many things: soccer, photography, computers—and his ESSS course. “In Mr. Russell’s class, you’re always learning something or doing something,” he explains. “Everything you learn is so extreme. There’s no other way you’d know about it.”

Visits to the Maryland space center are not just informative, according to Susan Shepard (rear); they’re also great for networking. “You can talk to the other teachers and see what works and what doesn’t work [in their classrooms],” she says.
—Photograph by David Kidd

Michael’s passion for science, however, does go back a ways. It began when he was growing up in Florida and took a trip with his family to Cape Canaveral. “Ever since then, I’ve been interested in space and the sky,” he recalls. “Like most kids, I want to be an astronaut. I’d like to own my own plane. I’m interested in aeronautics....I love science.”

If aeronautics doesn’t work out, he’ll consider a career in photography or meteorology, which he knows demands a lot of training in math, science, and technology. But he’s up for the challenge and says that Russell’s course is a great first step. “I wish there was a class like this all my life,” he adds.

Today, Michael and his fellow students are starting a lab assignment that requires them to classify minerals. A variety of stones, such as feldspar and quartz, are spread across tables all over the room. But before they begin, Russell wants to recap. “Yesterday, we went to Goddard,” he says, almost boastfully. “You know, college professors, they get their information from NASA scientists.... We had the top scientists that study the sun.”

With most of the students listening attentively, Russell capitalizes on the moment by reminding them that his class keeps pace with the latest developments in science, even without NASA’s most expensive gadgets. “But with computers, you can look at the sun all the time,” he adds.

Noting the continued curiosity, he says: “They’re looking for students who might be interested in working at Goddard.”

“That would be cool,” says one girl who, until now, had been chatting with a neighbor.

This last exchange is poignant. NASA is hoping that its collaboration with Anne Arundel will help ensure the future of the space program. Nearly a quarter of its workforce will become eligible for retirement over the next five years, and because of security concerns, the government wants to recruit scientists from within the United States rather than abroad. NASA’s concerns aside, schools nationwide are in desperate need of math and science teachers, and many growing industries are seeking people with experience in those subject areas.

“We need to look at who the next generation of scientists are going to be,” says NASA’s Robert Gabrys. “There just aren’t students studying those fields.”

Gabrys’ concern may be exaggerated, but he’s right that the number of aspiring scientists probably isn’t large enough to keep pace with rising needs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students receiving bachelor’s degrees in engineering and related fields such as aeronautics dropped significantly overa 10-year period. In 2000, they constituted only5.8 percent of the degrees granted, compared with 8.4 percent in 1989. And while the number of degrees received in physical science increased slightly over the same period, it still adds up to only 1.5 percent of the total. The math field was the hardest hit, losing nearly a quarter of its awarded degrees. Students receiving bachelor’s degrees in math now make up only 1 percent of the total.

Gabrys and like-minded educators hope that programs like the one in Anne Arundel will encourage more students to pursue science-related fields. But earth science also has value beyond its career-building potential, touching on issues like natural resources and climate change. “It has impact on everyday decisions,” Ed Geary explains. “From our standpoint, being Earth-literate is really a central component necessary for anyone who is going to buy a house, drive a car, or examine the impact of their existence.... Earth science really takes the sometimes more-abstract disciplines and makes them relevant.”

Educators hope that programs like the one in Anne Arundel will encourage more students to pursue science-related fields.

The nearly 1,500 Anne Arundel students now taking Earth/Space Systems Science help make Geary’s case. While the course was originally intended for middle-performing students who didn’t have the background needed for chemistry and physics, Annapolis High’s Anzalone says many advanced students have expressed interest. In addition to the eight periods already scheduled next year, he reports, the school plans to add two classes for honor students.

The program’s academic impact remains to be seen. Because participation is still in flux, county administrators have yet to measure results. But according to Rochelle Slutskin, the Anne Arundel science coordinator, the popularity of ESSS has infused school science departments with new energy. Anzalone confirms that interest in related courses, such as environmental science, has spiked since ESSS was introduced at Annapolis High. And John Malek, chair of the science department at Old Mill High, says the course helped him persuade state and county officials to give his school $3.2 million to renovate its science classrooms and provide new computer equipment. “People were seeing how [technology] could be used in the classroom,” he reports, “so it was easier to get funding.”

While Russell’s classroom has not been renovated, it has received new computers, which today are being used as part of the mineral-identification exercise. Grouped in pairs, the students circle the room, checking the color, texture, and luster of each rock. The rocks are scraped against pieces of porcelain to see whether they leave streaks. The results are then checked against a chart provided by Russell.

As old-fashioned as this lab seems thus far, there are more activities to come. Russell has put together a computerized presentation using images and video of cooling magma and crystalline structures, supplied in part by Goddard. He’s even recruited his aide, John Kyriacou, who aced ESSS last year, to appear in the video segments, for which John describes everyday uses of minerals.

Half the class sits in front of computer screens, reading Russell’s text and viewing the corresponding images. In a corner of the room, two students are having trouble getting the video version of John to appear on their screen. Russell heads over, strikes a few keys, and the classroom aide comes to life.

“Calcite,” John says on-screen. “It’s everywhere. It’s in your teeth. It’s in the wall. It’s in your bones. It’s everywhere.” He spreads his arms wide at the end of his spiel. The two students giggle, and Russell smiles.


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