With Citizen Science Projects, Kids Assist NASA, Build Understanding of Climate Issues

With citizen science projects like those in NASA's GLOBE program, students are learning scientific skills, connecting their regions with global trends, and aiding scientists with research.

This summer was the hottest on record in the Northern Hemisphere, according to a September report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The news came as youth activists ushered in fall by continuing their push for action on climate change, and teachers and public librarians find ways to engage kids in science in a meaningful way. 

Courtesy of NASA

Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, having sailed across the Atlantic to the United States, organized another youth strike similar to the events in March. This one was held days before Climate Week NYC, which included a United Nations Youth Climate Change Summit followed by the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit. Thunberg pushes politicians to create policy based on science and act. Around the world, millions have joined her mission and echo the same message. Explaining climate science to kids isn’t always easy, however.

“Climate change has a different impact in different locations. That makes it really tricky for teachers, right?” says NASA scientist Jessica Taylor.

The solution may start in their own backyard.

“Being connected to your own environment and being observant about [it] is the first step to being climate literate and having interest in the concept of climate change,” says Taylor, a physical scientist in the Atmospheric Composition Branch at NASA Langley Research Center. She serves as lead for the Science Education team and oversees the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) and My NASA Data programs. "You can begin to see, 'Oh what I am experiencing here or things that I emit in my location can impact somewhere else.'"

GLOBE is an international science and education program that enables students and the public to participate in data collection and scientific research. Taylor actually started as a GLOBE participant when she was in college in Florida. It was the first time, she says, that she realized that NASA also studies the Earth. 

"GLOBE really allowed me to build a lot of science confidence that I’m not sure I would have had outside of the program," she says. "The whole idea of GLOBE is that you are proactively doing science. You’re being a scientist whether it’s in the part that’s the data collecting, whether it’s going outside with instruments—or for clouds, using your eyes as instruments. [It's] that idea of categorizing, collecting data and analyzing data, you’re being a scientist. I really feel the GLOBE program helped me build and develop those skills and build confidence in [them that] allowed me to look at science in a way that I wouldn’t have."

Students collect data and upload the information, which is used by NASA scientists. Taylor heads the program that analyzes cloud and aerosol observations to track weather patterns and long-term climate trends. Having kids participate in citizen science projects like this—in the classroom or through a library program—helps young people make a global connection between their region and the rest of the world.

“When there are opportunities to unify language and things like data collection protocols, I think that takes a step in the direction of being able to think more globally,” says Taylor. “It’s using that interest in my own backyard, my own community, to build science content knowledge and vocabulary to then enter into this bigger conversation of what can happen on a global scale.”

In Gibraltar, MI, Shumate Middle School science teacher Jeff Bouwman runs an afterschool GLOBE advisory group. His students not only have gained insight into their immediate environment, but have also made that bigger connection through the NASA citizen science program.

Jeff Bouwman's students collect data in Michigan.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Bouwman

“I believe my students have a better understanding of how our planet works as a system,” he says.

In one protocol—the formal recording of observations in scientific experiments—his students take soil samples to measure moisture and temperature. In an area at risk for flooding, knowing the moisture level of the soil is a good predictor, Bouwman says. It’s part of why the program has such a big impact.

“Real-world application is always a win,” he says.

It doesn’t hurt to have NASA scientists “one click away,” either.

“Every time you need GLOBE or NASA, they’re there,” he says. “I can tell [my students] something till I’m blue in the face, but when someone from NASA says it, it must be true.”

The advisory group works hard—even when they are not in school. Bouwman’s school Facebook page is filled with pictures of students making cloud observations or collecting other data while on vacation or working with him over the summer.

Among their many GLOBE protocols, Shumate students have collected data on salinity in nearby ponds and recorded more than a thousand cloud observations using the GLOBE Observer app.

“Realizing you’re helping NASA and scientists around the world understand the four spheres [land, water, living things, air] and science as a system? Kids love it,” he says.

GLOBE is not a new program. It was announced on Earth Day in 1994 and launched in 1995. Citizen science in general is even older, having been around “basically since humans started noticing things,” says Taylor.

Working with NASA isn’t the only way for students to be citizen scientists. PBS, National Geographic, the National Park Service, and other organizations share projects and resources for educators. SciStarter, a searchable database of thousands of citizen science projects, has ideas and resources for libraries.

Citizen Science Kits have been available at several Maricopa (AZ) County Library branches for almost a year, thanks to a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and a partnership with Arizona State University (ASU) and SciStarter. There are different kits—from air quality sensors to macro lenses for smartphones, light traps, dark sky meters, and water quality kits.

Robin Salthouse, adult services supervisor at Maricopa’s Southeast Regional branch, is the public library liaison for the program. Her library circulates the kits and also runs events where patrons of all ages make observations in nature and record them in the iNaturalist app. The app then tells users about any ongoing research projects on that subject. Researchers in turn use the patrons’ photos and data.

Patrons who have recorded data from their dark sky meters have contributed to the GLOBE at Night project, according to Salthouse.

The ASU group, which also developed The Librarian’s Guide to Citizen Science, hopes to expand the kits into a national library program next year and eventually make them available to schools.

 

 

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