Enhancing Research and Education through Partnerships

What if, every day, a global network of students collected and shared measurements of small solid and liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere? Known as “aerosols” these tiny particles are important because some of them cool Earth’s climate, and some of them impair human health. And yet, scientists don’t know the full extent of aerosols’ influence on our planet. Having a community of students collect data about aerosols in geographically dispersed places around the world might contribute significantly to scientific understanding. But can students collect data accurate enough for professional-quality research? Pieternel Levelt, Principal Investigator for an instrument on NASA’s Aura satellite, believes the answer to this question is yes.

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In 2000, Levelt was approached by David Brooks, Research Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Drexel University, with the idea of forming a student-scientist partnership for data collection. Brooks works with GLOBE,—an international science and education program established by a group of U.S. government agencies in which thousands of students all over the world routinely collect and share their measurements of many different aspects of Earth’s environment. Brooks serves as Principal Investigator for GLOBE’s Aerosol Monitoring Project. GLOBE students use handheld devices called Sun photometers to measure aerosol concentrations. Students participating in this investigation collect and publish their aerosol data on the Web so their fellow students and scientists all over the world may use them.

GLOBE students carefully follow protocols established by scientists in order to collect accurate data. But many scientists who have not been involved with GLOBE question the validity of student-gathered data for professional science investigations and are reluctant to use the data. The GLOBE program has been fighting this negative perception among scientists ever since it began in the early 1990s.

  Photograph of Pieternel Levelt

Pieternel Levelt believes that high school students can collect scientifically valuable data to help validate her satellite-based measurements of small liquid and solid particles suspended in the air (aerosols). Many scientists doubt the usefulness of student data. In 2003, Levelt and colleagues conducted some experiments to resolve the issue. (Photograph courtesy Pieternel Levelt)

  Photograph of Students Learning How to Use a Sun Photometer

Levelt quickly warmed to Brooks’ idea of a student-scientist partnership, however, because she realized what a valuable contribution students could make to her research, and she wanted to encourage more young people to participate in science. “Originally, we wanted to join this program because in the Netherlands we see fewer and fewer young people, especially girls, interested in science,” explains Levelt, who conducts research at the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute. “In GLOBE, I saw a program that looked like it would be fun for students, and would get them involved with a satellite mission that could be a type of work they could do after they graduated.”

Aerosols present scientists—and students—with important and multi-faceted problems. Some aerosols cool the surface of our planet, while others exert a warming influence. Aerosols also affect the weather by enhancing or inhibiting cloud formation, leading to flood-causing rainstorms in some regions and drought in others. Aerosols also impact human health. When people inhale them into the lungs these particles make it hard to breathe, and they can cause cancer. Understanding the locations, amounts, kinds, and multiple effects of aerosols has become a critical area of research for Levelt and many other atmospheric scientists.

Satellite observations enable global-scale observations of aerosols. A sensor called the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) launched into orbit on the Aura satellite on July 15, 2004, collects aerosol data every day all over the world. Levelt is the Principal Investigator for OMI. As part of its Earth Observing System (EOS) mission protocol, NASA requires all instrument teams to validate their remote sensors. In other words, instrument teams must demonstrate that the sensors’ measurements are accurate within a specific margin of error. Validating satellite remote-sensing measurements is demanding, extensive work and requires precision. If the data are not validated, scientists will consider them useless for doing “real” research. Understandably, NASA satellite mission managers take validation very seriously.

As a practical matter, it isn’t feasible for scientists to make as many measurements at ground level for validation as they would like. Some desirable validation sites are remote, far apart, or inaccessible for a multitude of other reasons. As Levelt was developing her plan for validating OMI aerosol data, her Ph.D. student Folkert Boersma had a brainstorm—why not use the students’ GLOBE data to validate OMI’s aerosol measurements? Most scientists would have considered the idea preposterous. But Levelt liked it.

“That’s when we got serious about the idea,” she recalls. But the question remained: would the students’ data be reliable and accurate enough? Could she depend on both the GLOBE instrument and the students’ mastery of data collection procedures as contributions to her professional work?


A teacher and two students from De Blaucapel, a school in Utrecht, learn to operate the GLOBE Sun photometer at the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute (KNMI). Scientists have established protocols and developed inexpensive sensors that enable student participation in research. (Photograph courtesy Joke van de Bovenkamp, KNMI)


Students to the Rescue

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Aerosol-observing instruments measure the density of aerosol particles in a given parcel of air. On days when there is an abundance of aerosols overhead, less sunlight reaches the Earth’s surface because the particles scatter and reflect the Sun’s incoming rays. Today, thanks to Brooks and his partner Forrest Mims, GLOBE students all over the world are using handheld Sun photometers to determine how much sunlight is prevented from reaching the surface by aerosols. With these devices students derive a unitless measure, ranging from 0 to 5, called aerosol optical depth. An optical depth of less than 0.1 indicates a crystal-clear sky with maximum visibility, whereas a value of 4 indicates the presence of aerosols so dense you would have difficulty seeing the mid-day Sun!

Students who collect aerosol data following GLOBE protocols can help scientists understand local haze events, and can help to validate satellite-based observations. Moreover, GLOBE offers the advantage of being geographically distributed and can provide scientists with needed data from remote locations. “Especially when they are taken at the time of an EOS-Aura overflight of an observation site, the GLOBE Sun photometer measurements provide data of great scientific interest,” says Brooks. Brent Holben, manager of the international Aerosol Robotic Network (AERONET) at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, agrees. “If we can get 100 dedicated kids around the world to do this, it will be the world’s largest haze network.”

  Group Portrait of Czech Students Involved in GLOBE

To demonstrate to herself and the scientific community that students’ GLOBE measurements could be used to validate satellite data, Levelt and her colleagues first decided to conduct a pilot study to determine whether or not GLOBE Sun photometers could measure aerosol optical thickness accurately. From September 2002 until July 2003, Levelt, Boersma, and Joris de Vroom, a Master’s degree student, made 138 measurements using GLOBE Sun photometers. The team compared the GLOBE Sun photometer data they collected with coincident measurements they made using a professional Sun photometer. They found the precision (exactness) and accuracy (freedom from mistakes) of the GLOBE Sun photometer data were comparable to the same measures made by the professional device.

After making sure the handheld Sun photometers were capable of making accurate measurements in the hands of professionals, De Vroom and Boersma conducted another experiment to find out whether or not students could make the measurements accurately. When scientists use professional instruments and observation techniques, a level of uncertainty in their aerosol measurements of less than 0.01 is quite good. Could students come close to that level of accuracy and precision?

A group of high school students at De Populier school in The Hague made 58 measurements of aerosol optical thickness using the handheld Sun photometers. Levelt and her colleagues compared the student measurements with the same measurements made by NASA scientists as part of AERONET. The student measurements and the professional AERONET measurements measured on average the same Aerosol Optical Thickness within 0.03. On average, the student measurements and the professional AERONET measurements differed from each other only by a value of about 0.03.


The GLOBE Program enables a network of scientists and students to make scientifically valid measurements for research on air and water quality, climate change, land cover analysis, and many other Earth system investigations. This class of students at Esko-anglicke school in the Czech Republic makes ozone measurements in collaboration with atmospheric scientist Jack Fishman and colleagues at NASA Langley Research Center. (Photograph courtesy Renata Kollarzykova)

Graph comparing GLOBE to AERONET aerosol optical depth measurements

“Students can do it,” concludes Levelt. “Measurements made by students are basically not different from measurements by anyone professional. If the person understands how to prepare for the measurements, and if they are careful, the measurements will be good.”

Levelt acknowledges that work remains to be done on teaching students to more precisely collect their Sun photometer data, but she is very optimistic about the students’ ability to contribute meaningful data to satellite-based aerosol research. Seventeen schools are now involved in her student project, and six of the schools routinely collect data for her. To learn more about the project, visit the GLOBE Aerosol Monitoring Project.


Folkert Boersma and Joris De Vroom, at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), conducted a pilot project to determine whether students using GLOBE Sun photometers could accurately measure aerosol optical thickness. Dots on the graphs combine the values of aerosol optical thickness measured by students with professional AERONET measurements collected at the same place, date, and time. The distance of the point along the horizontal axis shows the student values; the distance along the vertical axis shows the professional observations. The student measurements were generally in agreement with AERONET measurements at both 508 nm (left) and 625 nm (right) wavelengths. (Graphs courtesy Joris de Vroom, KNMI)


More About Partnerships

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High school teacher Frank Niepold from the Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C., has guided his students in GLOBE investigations for several years. His students have been involved in collecting aerosols for ground validation of observations by the MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite since March 2002. Niepold places high value on GLOBE investigations for student learning. “My aim is getting kids to do real science,” says Niepold. “When they start looking at Earth system changes through time, that’s when my class hums.” Tackling unanswered questions is a large part of what makes professional science exciting, and it almost never happens in an ordinary classroom. Perhaps the most important gift a scientist or teacher can give to students is the experience of scientific discovery, and the inspiration to engage in a scientific pursuit.

  Satellite Image of Dust and Smoke over Central Africa

Students learn in unanticipated ways. “I thought I’d like to study the blue color of the sky, and the project snowballed,” says Gianna D’Emilio, a high school junior at Burke School. D’Emilio and three other GLOBE students took aerosol measurements for nine months, coinciding with the overflight times of NASA’s Earth-observing Terra satellite. The Burke students presented their observations and analysis of data at the GLOBE Learning Expedition conference, in Sibenik, Croatia, in the summer of 2003. Georg Hatterscheid, a teacher at Realschule Cuxhaven, in Cuxhaven, Germany, and his students joined the project. Students from both schools participated in a presentation at the 54th International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany, in the fall of 2003. “We were treated as scientists, said Gianna. “The expectations were really high. We had to talk to the scientists and be articulate, and that was a huge thrill for me.” For the German students, the opportunity to present their work in English before an international audience was a major event.


Dust and smoke mingle over central Africa in this image from Terra’s MODIS instrument. Ripples of beige-colored dust are blowing south from the Bodele Depression in Chad into Nigeria and Cameroon. Smoke from land-clearing fires in the African Sahel mix with the dust. Occasionally, dust and smoke from this region blow over Europe and the Americas. Measurements made by students on the ground are used to authenticate measurements made by satellites flying high above. (NASA image courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response)


D’Emilio describes her major interests as English and drama. She took on the role of writing and editing the team’s presentation to a group of scientists at an international GLOBE conference in Croatia. The experience “helped me see science the way it is accomplished when scientists meet and share ideas,” says D’Emilio. “I really appreciated the people at the conference who especially loved teaching and knew how to make us feel part of the science.” For someone acknowledged by both herself and her teacher as “not a strong science student,” her growing science literacy pointed to the value of the partnership for all students. Niepold says, “because of Gianna and Jordan’s work with GLOBE, now there’s a buzz in the school. That pilot project has opened students’ eyes to what’s possible.”

For students who are already sure they want a career in science, making a formal presentation to a group of scientists holds tremendous value. “I’ve had a strong interest in science for as long as I can remember,” says Jordan Glist, a senior at Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C. “I’ve always liked taking an analytical approach to things, so I was naturally interested in the aerosol measuring and analysis project. But I really got deeper into it when we had to write about our analysis for the presentation in Croatia. We were trying to determine whether or not MODIS (the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites) was making accurate measurements over urban areas. We had to explain how we’d gone about comparing our ground-based measurements at our urban school to MODIS’s space-based measurements. To get the concept across, we had to really understand the data analysis process we were going through. I know other students who collected data with the same instruments but who didn’t understand the significance of what they were measuring because they didn’t have to write about it for a formal presentation.”

Student-scientist partnerships not only take students and teachers to the heart of best practices in education, but they can also help expand the pipeline of potential future scientists and researchers for industry, academia, and government. The Chairperson of the Interdisciplinary Science Center at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, USA, Dianne Robinson, runs several student partnership programs. “Some of the scientists love doing this work. They see it as developing a pool of potential candidates for their science disciplines,” says Robinson. Furthermore, Robinson says, “Across the board, working with NASA scientists gives students windows into further things. Some of my students present their research at the university level, and at conferences such as AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science).”

Obstacles to scientist-student partnerships are great, but the tantalizing rewards of engaging students in authentic research entice scientists and educators to continue looking for ways of working together. Lack of time presents the biggest challenge. Time is a precious commodity for scientists and educators alike, and rewarding partnerships require significant, consistent time commitments over a long period. Another obstacle is differences between scientists’ and students priorities. School curricula generally don’t support long-term studies of the same science ideas, nor do students usually collect data during summer. Scientists, students, and teachers also have different levels of science understanding, and all partners must learn to respect what the others bring to the partnership. Furthermore, most scientists have already formulated their research questions before their partnerships begin, and students need help in developing theirs so the data collection has meaning for them. Students and teachers need the tools, preparation, communication, and support for being fully part of the research process.

  Photograph of GLOBE Students in Croatia

High school students Chris Hanawalt, their teacher Frank Niepold, Melanie Benetato, and Gianna D’Emilio presented their work in partnership with David Brooks at the GLOBE Learning Expedition conference in Sibenik, Croatia in 2003. (Photograph courtesy Frank Niepold)


Can partnerships work to benefit both science research and education? Based upon Levelt’s experience, the answer is yes, for some people, and for some kinds of measurements. It takes commitment and a concerted, long-term effort to make such a partnership succeed. Students and scientists must pay special attention to one another’s fundamental concerns. Scientists must feel confident that the quality of the data collected by students will meet professional standards; teachers must be convinced that the student learning outcomes justify taking time from the traditional curriculum; and students must become personally engaged in the project. When these elements come together as they did for Levelt and her students, both science and education can benefit.

  Photograph of David Brooks with Two Teachers

David Brooks, of Drexel University, shows a pair of teachers how to use the GLOBE Sun photometer. It takes a high degree of commitment and long-term efforts for scientist-student-teacher partnerships to succeed. (Photograph courtesy David Brooks)