Lessons Learned at the Regional Science Fair

A young scientist presents in the undergraduate poster session of the American Chemical Society spring meeting, 2007.  Image credit: Ellen Valkevich.
A young scientist presents in the undergraduate poster session of the American Chemical Society spring meeting, 2007. Image credit: Ellen Valkevich.

This spring I had the privilege of being a judge at my local science fair. As a high school student, I had participated in the science fair and it was a huge part of my science learning experience. Now that I am qualified to be a judge, it is time for me to give back while avoiding the trap of turning into the dreaded Reviewer #2.*

I scored quite a few different projects, primarily in Earth & Environmental Science. I was pleased to see the large number of students involved in the discipline, and the interest they showed in environmental monitoring and sustainability. However, I was surprised to see the number of projects which focused on pH, but without understanding of pH of rainwater or the influence of carbonates.

Limited or non-existent access to instrumentation was clearly a limiting factor in many of the projects. That observation leads to a question: what can be done to address the disparity in instrument access and to improve the quality of data being used in science fair projects? I believe the long-term answer to that question is to fund our schools and support the teachers and staff who work in them.

Another solution would be to have students use and analyze publicly available data. In many cases, this cut out some of the hands-on portion of making measurements, which detracts from the overall learning goals. Using publicly-available data also means that teachers would need to be more aware of good data resources and ideas for how to go about analyzing that data—each significantly increasing the work load and responsibilities of the teachers. For research projects, it is important to have a low student:teacher ratio, so that the students can have the support they need to succeed in their project. However, publicly available data allow students to do cutting-edge research with the same tools and data used by professional scientists.

Here are a few examples of low-budget, high-quality data projects that could be interesting:

  • Weather forecast accuracy. Make a daily record of the National Weather Service forecast (for each day forecast) for your area, as well as the almanac data from the closest instrumented NWS station (often an airport). How does forecast accuracy change over time? How accurate is a forecast 72 hours out?
  • Earth-Observing Satellite data. With a constellation of Earth-observing satellites including Aqua, Terra, Landsat (7 and 8), and formerly EO-1, there are mountains of data waiting to be analyzed. Students can look at crop health locally, at glacial changes, deforestation, volcanic activity, wildfires, and a host of other things. Data are freely available, GIS software is freely available, and the data analysis skills are quite relevant in today’s job market.
  • Buoy data. As I’ve mentioned here before, there are several fleets of marine buoys which take various oceanographic measurements, such as conductivity-temperature-depth profiles and current measurements. Oceanography isn’t my thing, but I’m sure there are enough papers that use these data that some project ideas could be found. These projects are likely to use GIS.

* Reviewer #2 is known for being overly critical, wanting a paper that isn’t particularly close to the paper that was submitted, having unreasonable or unattainable expectations, and generally being a jerk.

The Fantastic Beauty of Heard Island

The Beauty of Heard Island.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY)
The Beauty of Heard Island. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY)

Heard Island is a place of fantastic beauty. Yes, the weather can be bleak and windy, but that too gives Heard Island some of its unique character. One morning I stepped out of the tent around sunrise, and was greeted by the scene above. I stood in awe for a moment at the landscape, which looked as though it were straight out of a painting. Things change quickly on Heard Island, so after only the moment’s pause, I ran back into the tent for my camera, and managed to take a few pictures that came out looking exactly like what I saw.

Glacial ice on the beach at Corinthian Bay, Heard Island.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
Glacial ice on the beach at Corinthian Bay, Heard Island. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

Scenery on Heard Island was usually dramatic, with gloomy greys punctuated with bursts of color—often the orange patches of king penguins. The wide, featureless nullarbor added to the fantastic feeling of the island by removing any sense of scale one might have.

King penguins standing on the beach watching the surf, Corinthian Bay, Heard Island.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
King penguins standing on the beach watching the surf, Corinthian Bay, Heard Island. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

For more pictures from Heard Island and the voyage on the Braveheart, please see the Flickr album.

Nares Glacier to Mount Drygalski Panorama

Panorama from Nares Glacier (left) to Mt. Drygalski (right) from the Atlas Cove camp.  This view spans from ESE through SSW, and is roughly 85 megapixels at full size.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY, hosted on flickr).
Panorama from Nares Glacier (left) to Mt. Drygalski (right) from the Atlas Cove camp. This view spans from ESE through SSW, and is roughly 85 megapixels at full size (28 MB). Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY, hosted on flickr).

One year ago, I was on Heard Island. Over the course of the expedition I took more than 6000 photos. Although I took three images with the Gigapan (Big Ben, the Azorella Peninsula, and—my favorite—Windy City), I also took photos for stitching together manually using my own camera.

I have been slow in stitching these pictures together, but with the one-year anniversary of their production coming around, I decided it was time to finish one or two of them. This is the first, and I hope I’ll find time to finish more. Putting it together, I was amazed that this is still a relatively wide-angle compared to what I had available: 70 mm on a 70–200 mm lens. The detail came out well, as is evident at full-size. The glaciers, moraines, and hills are all more than a kilometer distant over the “nullarbor”, a broad, flat, volcanic-sand plain.

Toward the left half of the image are some penguins for scale. They look like king penguins, putting their height around 1 meter. I count at least 31 penguins in the entire image.

I think I spot some of the relatively rare basement limestones cropping out at the very left edge of the image, and their appearance is consistent with a dip of 25–35° to the south.[1] A closer view (200 mm focal length) shows them more clearly.

Location of limestone, with annotation.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
Location of limestone, with annotation. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
Full-zoom on the limestone outcrop.  Bedding is clearly visible, dipping south.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
Full-zoom on the limestone outcrop. Bedding is clearly visible, dipping south. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

[1] Quilty, P. G. & Wheller, G. 2000; Heard Island and The McDonald Islands: a Window into the Kerguelen Plateau. Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania. 133 (2), 1–12.

Where on Google Earth #598

In WOGE 597, Stephanie showed us active sand dunes on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

Now we leave the glacial plains behind and head for the hills.

WOGE 598

Find the location, and leave a comment describing the important geology/hydrology/etc. of the scene. The person to leave the first correct location/comment gets to host the next WOGE.

Complete rules, hints, and a kmz file of previous locations can be found on Felix’s blog.

Where on Google Earth #597

In WOGE 596, we headed up the Nile River to the Aswan Dam.

Now, in a guest post, first-time winner Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley (@ConnectedWaters) takes us here:

Where On Google Earth 597

Find the location, and leave a comment describing the important geology/hydrology/etc. of the scene. The person to leave the first correct location/comment gets to host the next WOGE.

Complete rules, hints, and a kmz file of previous locations can be found on Felix’s blog.

Good hunting, and thanks, Stephanie, for the new image!

Where on Google Earth #596

In WOGE #595, Ole took us to Easter Island, figuring that it may take a while for it to be found! It would have taken me much longer to find had Felix not remarked about how it was a little early for that place!

Now for WOGE 596, we leave the volcanic cones behind.

Where on Google Earth #596

Find the location, and leave a comment describing the important geology/hydrology/etc. of the scene. The person to leave the first correct location/comment gets to host the next WOGE.

Good hunting!

Update: I neglected to mention that hints on searching, rules for hosting WOGE, and previous WOGE locations (.kmz) are available from Felix.

Big Ben Eruption Update 2017-02-27

Mawson Peak's summit crater glows orange in this false-color infrared image (bands 7-6-5) taken February 27, 2017.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY) using data from USGS LANDSAT 8 (public domain).
Mawson Peak’s summit crater glows orange in this false-color infrared image (bands 7-6-5) taken February 27, 2017. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY) using data from USGS LANDSAT 8 (public domain).

It has been three weeks since I reported on an active eruption on Heard Island seen by Landsat 8. Since then, the presence of lava at or near the surface in the summit crater of Mawson Peak has continued, and a thermal anomaly is present both in the February 27 Landsat 8 image shown above and in February 20 imagery. It is difficult to discern in the true-color imagery from February 27 whether there are any new lava/debris flows present. The two MODIS instruments (one on Aqua, one on Terra) have not picked up any thermal anomalies since early February.

Unfortunately, one of the best tools I’ve had at my disposal for keeping an eye on Mawson Peak is no longer available: NASA/USGS satellite EO-1 was decomissioned last week. EO-1 provided 10 m/pixel true-color imagery, which is significantly higher resolution than 15 m/pixel of Landsat. Archival data for both satellites remains available, but no new EO-1 data will be taken. New data from Landsat 8 typically comes in a few times each month (every 7-16 days), and I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

Mawson Peak in true color, February 27, 2017.  Image processing: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY) using USGS Landsat 8 data (public domain).
Mawson Peak in true color, February 27, 2017. Image processing: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY) using USGS Landsat 8 data (public domain).
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