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Chapter 9: Teaching Our Kids about Science and the Natural Environment | Data for Science and Society: The Second National Conference on Scientific and Technical Data | U.S. National Committee for CODATA | National Research Council

U.S. National Committee for CODATA
National Research Council
Interdisciplinary and Intersectoral Data Applications: A Focus on Environmental Observations


Teaching Our Kids about Science and the Natural Environment

Steven Richards

     I am grateful to have the opportunity to share with this audience some of the truly wonderful experiences I have had for the last 24 years in utilizing real-time weather information in pre-college education. During these years, I have worked with well over 100,000 students in the northeast Bronx. I can say without hesitation that using such data is extremely valuable to teachers and students alike.

     In the 1970s and early 1980s when I was a fifth-grade teacher in a Bronx, New York, elementary school, the cost of receiving real-time meteorological data was beyond the reach of most schools in our nation. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio was virtually the only source of real-time data, one that I used extensively during the mid-1970s.

     In 1977, I developed a project for my class that allowed more extensive, current meteorological information to be used in the classroom. For years, I had dreamed of acquiring a facsimile chart recorder that would enable my students to work with the very same weather charts that professional meteorologists use in their daily activities. One day, this dream became a reality when I received a call from a close friend Dr. David Rind, a climate research scientist who was working at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Dr. Rind informed me that a communications receiver and an old army surplus facsimile recorder were available for purchase from his facility. After hearing this news, I recall making a mad dash to the principal's office determined to present a convincing case for obtaining the equipment. I guess that my enthusiasm for the project won him over.

     At first, the equipment was very difficult to operate, but eventually we were able to produce facsimile weather charts. Two antennas on the school's roof captured radio signals transmitted from the U.S. Naval Station in Norfolk, Virginia, and from the Canadian Forces facsimile network in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

     About an hour each day was set aside for the class to work with these charts. Because the children were responding so positively to this activity, I decided to use the maps in other curriculum areas, such as geography and mathematics. A year or so later, the school purchased a more recently manufactured fax recorder and established a dedicated telecommunications connection to the National Weather Service (NWS) National Facsimile Network. Pupil teams were assigned to analyze and report on a variety of weather charts, including surface, radar, upper-air, and forecast maps.

     When word of this small project reached administrators at Community School District Eleven (CSD 11) headquarters, I was encouraged to seek funding for a broader district-wide program. In 1984, District 11 was awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Division of Atmospheric Sciences for the establishment of the District Eleven Weather Study (DEWS) Program.1 The goal of this project was to demonstrate that when fifth-grade students are given the opportunity to participate in activities that utilize real-time weather information they will not only gain knowledge of atmospheric-related concepts, but also develop a greater interest in general science. A "fully operational" weather station was established at a centrally located school within the district. Initially, all fifth-grade students in CSD 11 were bused to the weather station for class lessons. In the years that followed, the program added grades six and eight.

     The DEWS program utilizes real-time data and graphics to deliver science instruction. The products in use include facsimile weather charts, radar and satellite imagery, and numerical and text information. Most importantly, all students in DEWS are involved in inquiry-based, constructive activities. Students make observations of atmospheric variables, analyze a variety of weather charts, identify patterns in the atmosphere, and in some instances, actually forecast the weather.

     During the early years of DEWS, one problem became apparent. Because of the large number of classes in the district, visits to the weather station were limited. Students would often comment that they would like to work with current weather data on an ongoing basis. "When can we come back and use the data again?" the children often shouted as their trip ended.

     The emergence of the Internet has helped to solve this problem. The availability of great quantities of near real-time weather information on the Web spurred the City College of New York and CSD 11 to collaborate on Project WeatherWatch, a program that was funded by the Teacher Enhancement Program of the National Science Foundation. This project provided training to teachers in meteorological content and in the use of the Internet for improving classroom weather instruction. When the project began in 1994, very few teachers were familiar with the Internet and its potential for improving science instruction. At the present time, 17 elementary and middle schools in CSD 11 have set up weather stations that provide students with the opportunity to work daily with Internet-based current weather information at their own school.

     Educators in District 11 and throughout the nation are very much concerned with delivering instruction that embodies the science standards at national, state, and local levels. Curricula and student activities that utilize data and information available from meteorological and other Earth systems science disciplines can assist educators in their efforts to deliver successful standards-based instruction.

     The daily weather activities for students include the following. First, local observations are gathered and recorded. Pupils then report on a global full-disk satellite image. This exercise enables students to discover patterns of weather through the analysis of clouds. Other products in use are national and regional surface analyses and satellite imagery, forecast maps, and NWS climatological data bulletins.

     As a result of the positive outcomes of the WeatherWatch program, CSD 11's school principals, leadership, and teachers decided to explore whether the program's strategies, atmospheric science base, and inquiry practices had the potential to serve as the linchpin of a new and broader curriculum. The challenge was to transition from a project focusing on weather science alone to a new, sequential, district-wide science curriculum, building on the learning, skills, interest, and enthusiasm WeatherWatch engendered but addressing national and state standards.

     In spring 1997, District 11 established a science curriculum committee, consisting of teachers, principals, district staff, and faculty members of the City College of New York. This group examined existing hands-on curricula, materials, and activities kits that could be employed in a pilot program to evaluate the validity of using atmospheric and other Earth system science disciplines as a framework for the overall science program in the district.

     As a result of its investigations, the committee concluded that a congruent science curriculum could be developed that would be in conformance with the National Science Standards and with the New York State Math, Science, and Technology Standards. The curriculum would address concepts from the physical, life, astronomical, Earth, and atmospheric sciences; science concepts; scientific connections and applications; scientific thinking; scientific tools and technologies; scientific communication; and scientific investigation.

     Following the presentation of the committee's findings to district principals and teachers, and after receiving a nearly uniform affirmation to proceed, the committee began to make concrete plans to develop a project to implement the new curriculum. One important facet of the project was unveiled in October 1999--the district's science Web site was made available to teachers and students. When fully operational, this page will lead students to inquiry-based activities in current weather, floods, hurricanes, acid rain, tornadoes, and similar themes. These exercises will be interdisciplinary, drawing on principles, concepts, and information from the geological, hydrological, atmospheric, and life sciences.

     Activities also will be created for students that will incorporate earthquake data, volcanic data, acid-rain studies, and a variety of products accessible at the National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) Web site. One product of particular value is the NGDC marine relief imagery. An enlarged high-resolution topographic view of any location within District 11's boundaries can easily be generated.

     How can more schools become involved with environmental data? To successfully implement a program such as DEWS, I believe that three major commitments should be in place: (1) staff development (substantial training in Earth system sciences and in the instructional techniques required for successful classroom implementation); (2) sustained support of teachers by program staff, both on-line and on-site; and (3) high-speed Internet access.

     Also, Web sites that post environmental data might consider including material dedicated to educational content. It is difficult for teachers and students (as well as the general public) to understand the symbols, codes, and data representations on many images and charts. Thus, I would recommend that an explanation of interpreting this information be available.

1 Project DEWS gratefully acknowledges the funding support from the Division of Atmospheric Sciences of the National Science Foundation under the following grants: ATM-8313611, ATM-8822383, ATM-9016561 and ATM-9840305.

Copyright 2001 the National Academy of Sciences