SES students ‘reach for the skies’ during NASA project

Published 1:02 am Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Straughn Elementary students are now learning the sky is limit when it comes to science education after their teacher, Jill Smith, teamed up with NASA’s Langley Research Center to provide scientific observations to help validate some of the agency’s most prominent satellite instruments.

The program is called the “S’cool Project” — or Students’ Cloud Observation On-Line. It is an international effort in which teachers and students examine clouds and submit their observations to NASA. Scientists in turn use that information to help assess the accuracy of its CERES, the clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System, which is a collection of satellite-based instruments that observe clouds from space and monitor Earth’s radiation balance.

“This has been a very interesting program and is different from anything that we have done before,” Smith said. “The students have been able to collect data and then go back and see if their weather and cloud data matched the satellite data. They have had several perfect matches. They’ve extremely excited about the project and have enjoyed it very much so far.”

Smith said the program allows students to learn fourth grade objectives, such as classifying and visual opacity, and also allows students to actively enjoy learning.

“These types of programs are important because students learn more when they are interested and having fun,” she said.

Smith said she learned about the project when she attended a National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) meeting last fall in Birmingham. It is also through Smith’s involvement with the association that she has been able to secure several pieces of equipment, such as a global positioning system (GPS) unit and a handheld data collector.

Smith and her fourth grade students join others from more than 1,000 schools across the globe who have made observations of the sky to verify or “ground truth” what satellites see from space. NASA reports students from 54 countries are involved in the project and have made more than 74,000 cloud observations.

Smith said because clouds have so many layers, satellites can be limited in their observation abilities.

“NASA tells us these ground measurements greatly improve their understanding of clouds because they offer a different perspective,” she said.

NASA officials say if students are able to analyze the clouds within 15 minutes of one of the CERES spacecraft flyovers, scientists at Langley will be able to take the two sets of data and study the effects clouds have on the Earth’s climate.