Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Students get new view on science — Class takes pictures of Earth with International Space Station camera
By Jenny Neyman
Kenai Middle School’s seventh-grade trip photos are a world apart.
There are no snapshots of friends mugging for the camera, no remembrances of funny signs or interesting roadside curiosities, no photographic evidence of practical jokes done while the victim was sleeping.
That’s because the students weren’t the ones doing the traveling. But they were in charge of the camera, and they used their shutterbug and science skills to capture images not seen in any typical vacation slide show — pictures of Earth from space.
The KMS seventh-grade science class participated in ISS EarthKAM, a NASA-sponsored program that allows students to take high-quality photographs from the International Space Station as it orbits the planet.
The program has been going since 1996, and science teacher Allan Miller had students participate in it when he taught at Sterling Elementary School. When he started teaching at Kenai Middle this year, he found that co-teacher Cheryl Schey had done the program at Kenai Middle previously, so they decided to expand it to all seventh-graders as part of science class.
“This is a cool project. It has so many applications. It can be a social studies project, geography, a science project. Now there’s enough data over 10 years you can see some of the effects of climate change. You can see it with real student-generated data. I think that’s fascinating,” Miller said.
With EarthKAM, classes can reserve use of a special digital camera pointed at Earth on the International Space Station for three days at a time. They program it to take pictures at certain exact times — down to the second. Students figure out the longitude and latitude of what they want photographed, and figure when the space station’s camera will be in range by tracking the station’s orbital trajectory, altitude and speed.
“We had these little time zone things where you could see where the space station was going over at certain times and you had to find what you wanted to do, and it had to be pretty precise on where it was,” said Courtney McCauley, a seventh-grader. “And then you just put in the latitude and longitude and all that and where you wanted to take pictures of.”
Miller had the students take pictures of biomes across the planet. McCauley picked a part of the globe she’d like to see for herself one day.
“I like Sydney, Australia, and I want to go there, so I decided to take a picture of Australia. I took a couple pictures, this just happened to be the best of them,” she said.
The area she photographed is the West Coast of Australia, near Port Headland. It’s a section of coastline where copper-colored sand meets the deep blue of the ocean.
“The iron-rich sand and blue of the ocean really contrast each other nicely and there’s some beach in there. It makes some really unique designs. Some you would look at and you would swear it was art. It doesn’t even look like a picture,” Miller said.
“I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. I didn’t know it would turn out in that much detail, but I think it turned out really well. Other ones were good, but I think mine just had like the border and all that, and the water in it,” McCauley said.
It’s a difficult task to capture exactly what you want, Miller said. The altitude of the space station, the speed it’s moving at and a lag time in technology creates about a three-mile margin of error that needs to be compensated for.
“It comes down to luck of the draw, in that you don’t have total accuracy. You think you’re shooting a picture of a coastline and it turns out a nice shot of ocean,’ Miller said.
Student pictures are archived in a massive database, and can be viewed online at www.earthkam.ucsd.edu, by clicking on the Images tab and browsing by school.
“I think just being able to take a picture of anything you wanted and see the picture back and see what it looks like in real life. You may think it looks like something but when you get the picture back it may look like something else. It’s a different point of view than what you see it from,” McCauley said.
Not only did the project contribute to the students’ knowledge of geography, orbital mechanics and other topics, their photos contribute to an archived body of science.
“There are some incredible shots in there. I think students take a real sense of pride because, ‘This is my picture. I took this from space.’ It’s probably the closest thing any one of us will get to being there, that’s for sure,” Miller said.
Except in Miller’s case, that may not be true. He’s still awaiting word of whether he’ll be selected into NASA’s astronaut program. He applied with 4,000 other hopefuls in July, and made the cut down to 120 selected for the interview stage. He went to the Johnson Space Center in Houston in December for a round of interviews and rigorous physical, psychological and intelligence testing.
From that he was selected as one of 40 finalists, and just spent another week in Houston undergoing more medical testing. He’s the only educator left in the running, in a pool with mostly military pilots and doctoral-level scientists, he said.
“It’s just a bit intimidating, for sure,” he said.
Miller will hear in May whether he’s one of the 10 to 15 selected for the astronaut program. If he is, he’ll have to report to Pensacola, Fla., in early June to start learning how to fly jets.
“It’s not going to be a gradual little transition, it’ll be wrapping up school, then taking off,” he said. “We’ll see. I feel real good about how it went. They didn’t find any big medical problems, which is what they were looking for this time.
“It’s going to make for a long couple months waiting, for sure.”
The wait is broken up by some excitement this month, as Miller is spending the week in New Orleans at the National Science Teachers Association National Conference on Science Education, where he will be the first ever recipient of the Dr. Wendell G. Mohling Outstanding Aerospace Educator Award, co-sponsored by the Challenger Center for Science Education and Sally Ride Science.
The award recognizes a teacher who demonstrates excellence locally and nationally in the field of aerospace education. A committee of teachers, professors and scientists selected Miller from a pool of nominees across the United States. He gets $3,000, a free trip to the NSTA conference, and the award will be presented by astronaut Sally Ride at the awards banquet Sunday.
“It’s just so humbling. It’s the first time they’ve presented this award nationally, just for teachers specializing in space and aerospace science. I enjoy what I do, but I don’t think of myself as national class,” Miller said. “And so it’s really humbling to go down there and kind of be representative of all teachers.”
Miller said it will be a thrill meeting Ride, since she’s one of his heroes.
“Talk about someone laying the groundwork for ladies in space and ladies in science, and she continues to be a nationwide leader in science education,” he said.
He’ll be decked out for the honor thanks to support from back home. He went to Malston’s in Kenai to rent a tuxedo for the event, and when owner Ron Malston found out what it was for, he donated the rental.
“It’s neat to see other people getting excited about it, too,” Miller said. “There’s thousands of teachers in this district working hard every day, and there just isn’t enough recognition for teachers out there. A lot of times the recognition doesn’t come for years. To have it right when I’m in class is pretty exciting.”