ESRL Quarterly Newsletter - Winter 2011

Young Students Film Scientists

February gala features NOAA-funded Earth Explorers videos

  • What do you wear in Antarctica?
  • Does taking a tree core hurt the tree?
  • What is a laser, anyway?

Several dozen middle school students from Longmont’s Trail Ridge Middle School peppered ESRL and other Boulder-area scientists with questions during hours of interviews last fall.

The questions the students asked and the angles they chose for their movies reflect diverse and sometimes quirky interests.

From those interviews and time in the field with scientists, student film companies stitched together short films, a few minutes long, which will be shown in a gala premier February 12, at the University of Colorado’s ATLAS Institute (Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society).

“This project was first and foremost about connecting diverse kids with science and scientists in a fun way,” said ESRL outreach specialist Carol Knight (Director’s Office), who was awarded a NOAA Preserve America grant last spring for the video program. “We did that.”

Students arrayed around table wearing 3d glasses.

Earth Explorers was funded by NOAA, and implemented in collaboration with the Boulder History Museum, Trail Ridge Middle School, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Ecological Observatory Network, and ATLAS.

Students were fascinated with Mongolian chemist Munhk Baasandorj, for example, who works in ESRL’s Chemical Sciences Division. Her descriptions of family members living halfway across the world in Ulaanbaatar made the cut. So did a clip of the students playing with vapor from liquid nitrogen Baasandorj uses to cool her equipment. (An explanation about how she uses lasers to study atmospheric chemistry didn’t make it in.)

Some student teams injected themselves into their films, even mugging for the camera; others focused exclusively on their subject. Most teams spent a lot of time figuring out how to identify themselves: Fluffy Space Monkeys and Superview Productions, for example, and UFF (Unidentified Flying Films).

“We knew to anticipate the unanticipated stuff,” Knight said, laughing at some of the names. “The point was for them to have fun while learning something.”

The students themselves – from economically and culturally diverse backgrounds – were effusive about the program.

“We worked with Bruce Bauer. He studies ancient climates,” said Emily, an 8th grade student at Trail Ridge, whose team interviewed the NOAA paleoclimate expert.

“He told us about how he gets climate information, from tree cores, ice cores…” her team member, LaJessie, added.

“And coral cores. The coral cores were cool!” Emily said.

LaJessie, also in 8th grade, said she’s been interested in science for ages, but always imagined pursuing medical science. “This changed my perception,” she said of the Earth Explorers program. “I’m more open to other science fields.”

The students, their mentors and teachers spent dozens of hours on the project. October through December, the students met every school day for 30 minutes before classes started with Trail Ridge science teacher and MESA coordinator Liz Sims. 

MESA, Math Engineering Science Achievement, is a program of the St. Vrain Valley School District, and it focuses on encouraging student interest and continued education in science. Earth Explorers staff, complemented by Sims’ and other Trail Ridge teachers’ expertise, met for an hour every Tuesday afternoon, and spent five fall Saturdays on video editing.

Jenn Glaser, who created and directed the Earth Explorers program, and Carolyn Wiley, director of video education, and other Trail Ridge teachers also worked with the students on interviewing, telling stories through video, and the architecture of a good story.

“We learned about plot, rising action, conclusions…” said 7th grader Cade, who worked with a team featuring retired NOAA satellite engineer Lorne Matheson.

“We had a little trouble with our conclusion… so we ended up asking people what the world would be like if there were no satellites,” Cade said.

“We wouldn’t know what Earth looks like,” said teammate Justin, an 8th grader. “We wouldn’t be able to predict the weather without them.”

“Or have TV, or phones,” Cade added.

One of the program’s strengths, Sims and Glaser said, was that it drew on the students’ unique strengths and interests. 

“Some kids were interested in the interviewing, animation, making their own music with Garage Band (a computer program)…” Sims said.

“One kid kind of checked out during the scientist interviews, but he became obsessed with Garage Band, and very good at it,” Glaser said. “The most important thing was that they all felt empowered and proud, They took real ownership in their films.”

There will be no red carpet or Oscar-style designer gowns at the upcoming gala, said one student, with just a touch of disappointment. “It’s business casual,” she said. “That means professional, I guess.”


“The work I get to do benefits everybody, the whole country,” marveled ESRL’s Tom LeFebrve (Global Systems Division). “I write computer software that helps forecasters do a better job of forecasting and helps them warn the public.”

“I love the work I do for NOAA,” said ESRL’s Brian Vasel (Global Monitoring Division). “I think it’s very important and relevant to society… I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”


Photo by Jenn Glaser.