Satellites have revolutionized global communications. Teachers say satellites are also changing scientific education, introducing students to pictures and research data transmitted from space. Scientists and teachers attended a recent conference of the Satellite Educators Association in Los Angeles.
Hundreds of satellites constantly send back images of earth and its weather systems, and educator Paula Arvedson says teachers are using the data to get their students involved in real-world science. Arvedson is associate professor of education at California State University, Los Angeles, which hosted the annual conference of satellite educators.
"We study oceans, we study currents, we study ocean temperature, also weather," she said. "We look at agriculture, crop health."
One student project is looking at marine life in nearby Santa Monica, using data from satellites.
John Moore, the association's incoming president, teaches high school science in Medford, New Jersey. He says the satellite educators association was set up to introduce teachers and students to the Earth as seen from space. In 1988, when the organization was founded, teachers built satellite receivers to get data from government agencies, including the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and the space agency NASA. He says by the 1990s, the Internet made that data more accessible.
"And so all this information, of course, is now available to anyone free over the Internet," he said.
Fourteen-year-old Monique, a student from Orange County, California, has worked on various projects.
"Birds and migrations, and how the satellites track them," she said. "And two years before that, because of Hurricane Charlie, hurricanes and their effects and how satellites can be used to dissect them. And this year, I think we're going to be talking about the atmosphere and about the ocean and the temperatures."
Retired California teacher Duane Laursen has downloaded many types of data from US and Russian you can do with looking at photosynthesis," he said. "You can look at landforms in Earth science, earthquake faults. It just goes on and on, and it's unlimited just how creative you can be with this idea."
Bob Wanton of the National Weather Service sees widespread interest in global warming and hurricanes, and says many student projects blend real-world observation with satellite information. He says the projects get students into science early.
"We get them involved with going out, taking weather observations, looking at the computer models, and forecasting themselves or at least trying to forecast themselves," he said. "It piques their interest. It gets them involved. Whether they go into weather or not, at least they're seeing what's out there. They're getting into some kind of science, and it's making their mind work."
The satellite projects have applications beyond Earth-bound weather forecasts. One student group is studying pictures of Mars, another is looking at images of Saturn's rings and moons sent back by NASA spacecraft, and a third is studying turbulence on the sun's surface, in images relayed to the classroom by satellite.