St. Peter students help NASA scientists via data collection program

Lisa Johnston |

Jack Schellingerhout and Shane McKelvey craned their necks as they observed a tapestry of clouds.

The St. Peter School eighth- graders referred to their worksheet to determine what they were seeing. The large grey blanket hanging low in the sky consisted of stratus clouds, they agreed. A debate ensued: were they nimbostratus — the rain-producing type?

At that moment, a smattering of fat raindrops hit the pavement.

"Wetness!" shouted one student.

"It's definitely nimbostratus," science teacher Travis Coleman said. "OK let's go in."

While students at the St. Charles school are learning about clouds, their observations also are helping scientists track climate data via the GLOBE Project, an international science project sponsored by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Coleman was at a science conference last summer when he learned about the effort, which promotes scientific discovery through data-collection activities about the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and soil/pedosphere. He went through training and is now training science students in fifth through eighth grades on how to collect the data.

"I can go out and teach the kids about clouds, but I think it adds a layer of importance to it when I say NASA scientists are actually going to use the data we put in," Coleman said.

"It's easier to identify clouds now, and now I think I know what's going to happen with the weather," eighth-grader Maggie Dultz said. "The darker clouds have more water condensation in them, and it's most likely going to rain soon."

Students also said their contributions help scientists understand the bigger picture about the atmosphere. "When we're under the clouds and can see the bottom, and they are above, they can put the two together and have a better picture of things," Jenna Hoerchler said.

Students also are learning about polar ice and its connection with climate change via another NASA program, IceBridge, in which scientists are conducting a six-year airborne survey of ice sheets over Greenland and Antarctica to look for changing features. Students recently participated in a video conference with NASA scientists, who described the process of flying over the Arctic as they point lasers at the ice to measure its depth.

Tying into their lessons on the elements and atmosphere, Coleman showed students a video clip form CNN Student News, in which ISIS has purposely set off explosives in a sulphur factory in Mosul, Iraq, sending poisonous fumes into the air. People living in the area have sought medical attention for breathing trouble, burning eyes and choking.

Tying the lesson into religion, Coleman reiterated the message of using God's gifts for good. "That's an example of using God's gifts and natural resources on the earth for evil instead of for good," he said. "Keep that in mind — God gave you this, we need to use it correctly."

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