ESRL Global Systems Division

FSL Brings Science on a Sphere to Broomfield Heights Middle School

Over the past year, NOAA's Forecast Systems Laboratory (FSL) in Boulder, Colorado, has developed Science on a Sphere, an educational program that projects images from environmental satellites, output from computer models of the atmosphere, and data on land-surface and ocean-bottom topography onto a large, suspended sphere. By autumn 2002, the program had matured sufficiently for a classroom demonstration.

Beverly Meier, educational consultant and eighth-grade teacher at Broomfield Heights Middle School in Broomfield, Colorado, had visited FSL during the previous three summers. In 2002, she developed several lesson plans that are appropriate for middle-schoolers and also satisfy National Science Education Standards. These lessons covered the earth's geographic features (topography, bathymetry, and key geopolitical locations); the utility of latitudes, longitudes; the importance of the Greenwich Meridian and the International Dateline in defining Coordinated Universal Time; the degree of settlement and industrialization in various parts of the world; cloud motion and temperatures in the earth's atmosphere; the limitations of flat maps that try to represent features on a spherical earth; and atmospheric water vapor.

Meier also arranged for over 500 students of the Broomfield Heights Middle School to view these lessons in groups of 20 to 30, on October 21-23, 2002. The 22nd and 23rd coincided with parent-teacher conferences. Fourteen scientific and technical staff from FSL and two representatives of NOAA's Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Outreach Program descended upon the Middle School and conducted the lessons using a 200- pound, five-foot diameter white sphere, suspended from the science lab's ceiling struts, four projectors positioned at 90-degree spacing around the sphere, and a customized software package to correctly arrange the images onto the sphere.

The students were wide-eyed and enthusiastic about the displays. Looking through 3-D glasses, they saw enormous ridges, canyons, and crustal plates beneath the oceans. They identified geographic features with laser pointers. They learned that many U.S hurricanes originate as disturbances in Africa that move westward across the Atlantic, later to strengthen in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico. They marveled at the lights visible on the dark side of the earth. They discovered that flat maps of the earth's surface inevitably suffer from distortion. They pointed out climatologically wet and dry regions.

They talked about the demonstrations at the lunch table. They also told their parents. By the end of the third day, over 150 parents had taken the time to visit the exhibit in connection with parent-teacher conferences.

This first public showing of Science on a Sphere was a great success. FSL is planning other public showings, one in connection with the Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Long Beach, California, next February. FSL is perfecting the projection system and looking at a large variety of environmental data to add to the current selection of displays.

Contact information
Name: Thomas Schlatter
Tel: (303) 497-6938