Karon Kelly manages the K-12 education and outreach programs for the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO. The NCAR facility is managed by UCAR, the University Consortium for Atmospheric Research, a group of over 60 universities in North America with Ph.D. programs in the atmospheric sciences.
Would you describe what NCAR does?
Our primary mission is to advance understanding of the earth’s system. That includes climate change, changes in the composition of the atmosphere, earth-sun interactions, weather formation and systems that support forecasting. It includes research in areas such as ozone depletion, destructive storms such as tornadoes and hurricanes, climate change, and hazards to aircraft caused by atmospheric conditions.
What branches of science are involved?
Most of scientists here are involved in meteorology, physics, chemistry, some biology, and computer science. Also oceanography, since we need to understand the interactions and exchanges between the ocean and the atmosphere.
There are others who are involved in the social sciences, like economics and political science, because one of the areas that we study, of course, is the impacts of human societies on climate, and the impacts of climate change on human societies.
Absolutely. There’s software engineering, designing software programs to both collect and analyze data. And there is the work of designing hardware systems for instruments to collect data.
Scientists work very closely with the engineers: they describe what the environment of the research experiment is, what research data is going to be collected. The engineers will then work to design an instrument or a computer software program that will help in collecting and analyzing that data.
We have our own machine shop where instrument makers take these designs and create the instruments. They may be mounted on an aircraft or deployed right from the ground.
That’s a lot of different kinds of jobs.
Yes, and it’s important to understand that there are lots of jobs here not only for Ph.D. scientists, but also in numerous other careers that provide support. At the Lab, for instance, in a complex research experiment that takes place all over the globe, we require contract specialists who can deal with travel arrangements, visas for the scientific staff who are involved, pilots, mechanics to maintain the airplanes that are gathering data, technical specialists who develop the instruments that are mounted on the aircraft, administrators to plan and track budgets, write proposals to fund those science experiments, photographers who document the scientific research and the project itself, librarians who help to maintain the data and archive it.
What often is misunderstood about science is that there is a complex fabric of individuals and careers who make up the enterprise.
Why does NCAR have a K-12 education service?
Primarily because we know that in order to insure a supply of scientists and other professionals who can conduct science in the future, we have to keep students interested in science in general and the atmospheric sciences in particular. We also realize that weather and climate are a part of the everyday awareness of young students, and so weather provides a unique opportunity to engage students in the study of science.
Climate, pollution and the environment are part of everyone’s lives. It’s going to take a broad spectrum of professionals to engage in these problems. They are very complex and the health of the planet will be dependent upon engaging young people in the study of these problems.
Tell us about some of the programs that you offer to teachers and students.
Let me preface my answer by saying that one very important resource for educators and students is our website*. On the front page there is a link to education and outreach, and I would encourage anyone to check that site because I can’t possibly cover all of the details of these programs. Some of the highlights in the area of K-12 are programs for both students and teachers. For teachers we have not only enhancement programs but also resources they can use in planning their classes and in providing additional materials in the classroom. Many of theseare located on the website, and we’re adding more all the time.
As an example, we have a series of teaching modules for middle school teachers on atmospheric dynamics, ozone in the atmosphere and cycles in the earth and atmosphere. Much of that material is available on the Web. In the next six months all of it will be.
We collaborate with the Social Issues Resource Series, or SIRS, to produce something called Science Now, a newsletter that is also accessible on the Website that covers a variety of different topics. It includes hands-on activities for students as well as additional resources.
Are all these free of charge to teachers?
Another program focuses on teaching math using weather, Sky Math. That teaching module is on the Website. It includes all the information needed to teach 15 classroom activities. Again, this is using weather observation as a theme to teach middle school mathematics. It’s been in widespread use and has been very successful in teaching mathematics to all types of students and in engaging students in science through the teaching of math. We have a number of examples where students who had begun losing interest in science at the high school level began taking undergraduate meteorology courses through their high schools, because of Sky Math. A nice spin-off that we hadn’t really anticipated.
We have also just completed a teacher enhancement program called LEARN, which is Laboratory Experience in Atmospheric Research at NCAR. We are proposing to NSF to create a number of regional centers to continue that training across the US. If we are successful in getting that funding, there will be additional opportunities for teachers to participate in that training. Right now, what teachers should really look for are those modules.
Another resource for teachers is a digital media catalogue. We have over 1200 award winning images of weather, atmospheric phenomena, and scientific equipment that are available on the Web. Right now we only have small thumbnail images, but those can be blown up for classroom presentation. We are working on creating a full-blown digital image library and will have high resolutions available in the near future. In the meantime, that digital media catalogue does provide good enough resolution for Power Point presentations for teachers who want to use some of those shots in their classrooms.
What about one-on-one support?
We respond to teachers who contact us by providing any kind of information necessary to support their classroom activities. In some cases we’re actually able to connect them with scientists who may be able to serve as mentors in the classroom. We do that more on a case-by-case basis. There’s a part of the website that we’re developing out of Project LEARN, a site called “Ask a Scientist,” where teachers will actually be able to work with scientists on particular problems they’re having in the classroom, or maybe even have that scientist serve as a mentor to students doing research.
Studying complex systems such as weather – whether it’s a thunderstorm or long-term phenomena like climate change – requires enormous computing facilities, and a lot of students are interested in computers and computing. So we sponsor, with Colorado State University, Colorado Computational Science Fair. This year we had 100 students from Colorado and Wyoming submitting more than 70 projects using super computers to solve complex science problems.
Another program that is a new initiative at NSF is called the National Computational Science Leadership Program. This is an enhancement program for teachers, mostly at the high school level, to develop a core group of teachers who are better able to teach students to utilize computational facilities in the study of science It involves the supercomputing centers both here at NCAR and the University of Illinois, and I believe also the San Diego Supercomputing Center.
What would you personally like to see happen as a result of all of these efforts?
My personal soapbox is really the issue of the diversity of science. I think one reason students turn off to science is they have the stereotypical view of the scientist working in a lab in a white lab coat doing what they think is boring, uninteresting, difficult work. And we don’t have enough role models for the ethnic diversity of students we need to bring into this field.
I want young people to understand that it’s really exciting work, and that we need all kinds of people doing it. Many are unaware of the variety of locales in which science takes place–on mountaintops, in the air, under the ocean and beyond. It’s that excitement that we’d really like to convey to students and their ability to participate in that. Whether they go on to study science to the Ph.D. level or whether they choose to go into some technology field or computer science or economics or photography–there is work to be done that is challenging and fun and critically important to the future.