January 2010

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Happy 2010!

Happy 2010! I hope that all of you have had a great holiday break, and are getting ready for school to begin again. As I write this note, I'm enjoying a vacation with my family in Estes Park, Colorado, where we have a couple feet of snow. This is a beautiful place, with lots of interesting geology as well as flora and fauna. Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, is known for its large elk population. Elk frequently are found in large numbers hanging out on the golf course, and sometimes, are found peaking into cabin windows!

The Windows to the Universe team will soon be submitting our session proposals for the fall NSTA regional conferences - we plan to attend all of them, and hope to meet you there. We really enjoyed meeting those that could make it to our sessions at the NSTA conferences this fall, and welcome those that signed up for our newsletter at those events. Hopefully you will find useful resources and opportunities in our newsletter! We will have a full suite of sessions at the NSTA National Conference in Philadelphia, so please look for us there. We will include a full list of our sessions in our next newsletter.

If you haven't already, please take a moment to complete our online survey for teachers using Windows to the Universe. Our team is working hard to develop a suite of new resources, opportunities, and programs for teachers. In order to be successful in this effort, we need detailed input from teachers using the site about their needs in a number of areas. Please take a moment to complete the survey at https://survey.ucar.edu/s?s=5352. We appreciate your patience in completing this important survey, and look forward to developing these resources, programs, and opportunities to support your needs.

The Copenhagen Climate Summit

World leaders and delegates from 192 countries met in December 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark to attempt to come to an agreement on how much to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are known to cause global warming. Taking a look at this event with your students provides an excellent way to combine social studies and science in the classroom.

Windows to the Universe has developed educational content about the happenings in Copenhagen that links into the science content within our Climate and Global Change section of the web site. We also invite you to explore our suite of climate science hands-on classroom activities which complement these readings.

Galilean Satellites Discovery

In August we celebrated 400 years since Galileo Galilei made his first telescope. More anniversaries related to Galileo are coming up in the month of January. On 7 January 1610 Galileo observed with his telescope what he described at the time as "three fixed stars, totally invisible by their smallness" near Jupiter. Although Galileo initially thought they were stars, through continued observations over a couple of weeks, he realized that the objects he had observed remained in the vicinity of Jupiter. He was finally able to show that they were orbiting Jupiter, thus proving that not all objects in the heavens orbited the Earth. Galileo had discovered three of Jupiter's four largest satellites (moons): Io, Europa, and Callisto. He discovered the fourth, Ganymede, on 13 January.

Galileo named these natural satellites of Jupiter the "Medicean satellites", after the famous Medici family of Renaissance Italy. Later astronomers, however, renamed them the Galilean satellites in honour of Galileo himself. Simon Marius claimed to have observed Jupiter's moon prior to Galileo. Since Marius did not publish his observations right away as Galileo had done, his claims were impossible to verify. Galileo's system of naming moons by number was used till the mid-19th century, when more poetic names were officially adopted.

Since then many new moons of Jupiter have been found, and new ones are constantly discovered. Some of them are not named yet but most have been given names after mythological figures related to the god Jupiter. The count now stands at 63 moons. Check this page for the list of all the moons in Solar System.

What Causes Wind?

I recently moved to the middle of Maryland. And boy, is it windy here! When you think of windy places, Chicago comes to mind or Manhattan with the skyscrapers creating 'wind tunnels', but not the mid-Atlantic!

So what causes wind? It's a question students at any grade level might ask you. The simple answer is that wind is caused by differences in atmospheric pressure. Air flows from an area of high pressure to an area of lower pressure, and this movement is what we feel as wind. Usually, the differences in pressure are caused by differences in how the sun's energy is absorbed. Here's an example: In a coastal region, land usually heats up more quickly than the ocean when the sun is shining on it. As the air above the land warms, it begins to rise, and as it does that the air pressure at the surface drops. There is now a pressure difference between the air over the ocean and the air over the coast--the pressure over the sea is higher, and air will flow from over the sea to over the land. This creates what we know as a sea breeze--a cool wind coming from off the ocean.

Antarctica is consistently the windiest place on Earth. It is not unusual to have average wind speeds of 25 mph (40.2 kph). Other places in Antarctica are even windier and that makes for obviously harsh living conditions. At the Princess Elisabeth research station in Antarctica, average wind speeds are 53 mph (85.3 kph) and can gust up to 200 mph (321.9 kph). But residents are putting that wind to good use! This research station has recently installed eight wind turbines and is now the first zero emission facility in Antarctica. What a great alternative to diesel generators used more prominently in Antarctica.

Quadrantid Meteor Shower January 3rd

The first meteor shower of the new year peaks on January 3rd. The peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower is expected to occur around 1900h Universal Time on January 3rd (that's 2 PM Eastern time in the USA). Viewers in the Western Hemisphere should therefore be on the lookout for Quadrantid meteors early in the evening on the night of January 3rd. Unfortunately, the Moon will be just past the full moon phase then, so spotting dim meteors may be challenging once the bright moon rises.

The Quadrantids are a shower with an interesting history; they are named after a now defunct constellation, and, like the Geminids, the source of these meteors is a mysterious object that may be an asteroid or an extinct comet. Look for the Quadrantids on the morning of January 3rd; to learn more about them, click here.

Earth System Science Literacy Frameworks

Earth system science literacy means that we understand how our planet functions as a system of interdependent, interconnected parts, and that we use this knowledge to make decisions that affect Earth’s sustainability.

A set of conceptual frameworks have been developed to describe what we should know to be literate about the Earth system — the atmosphere, oceans, Earth, and climate. These frameworks are descriptive of aspects of the Earth when considered alone, and they complement each other in describing the entire Earth system. They are intended to be useful to promote informed decision-making in all sectors of society, and they are a resource for teachers to use in planning curricula. In order to help you with your planning, they are linked to science education standards and benchmarks. Check out these frameworks to see how they can help you with your science teaching!

Use these links to view each of the frameworks:
Atmospheric Science Literacy
Climate Literacy
Earth Science Literacy
Ocean Literacy

Cycle and ReCycle

If we want to keep Earth as a healthy place for our families and descendants, we need to reduce our production of greenhouse gases and slow global warming!

We can start at home. After the Holiday season, most homes are full of things that could be recycled (gift wrap, for example) so the first thing we can do is to look in our home to see what we can use again or recycle! Cycles are a big part of Earth science. There are lots of different kinds, like life cycles and geochemical cycles, and they help us understand Earth as a system that is constantly reusing resources. If we think of recycling that way, it's easy to see how important it is--if we reuse our resources as much as possible, we don't have to extract as many new resources from the Earth.

We can all work together to reduce our impact on Earth. Find your local recycling center and allow them to guide you in this process! Learn to enjoy reducing consumption, and may recycling be your New Year’s resolution!

Recycle paper, metal, plastic, glass, electronics, opt for natural cleaning supplies, don't litter, plant a tree, and have fun helping protect our planet!

The Reason for the Seasons

I was at a nature center class with my 5 year old son this past week and the teacher of the class was explaining that the winter solstice had just passed and that that would mean shorter days, colder temperatures -- all because Maryland was farthest away from the Sun at this time of year. My heart skipped a beat as I realized how early our scientific misconceptions can develop.

The solstice occurs in the month of December. This past year the solstice fell on December 21st. The solstices (winter and summer) and equinoxes (spring and fall) are astronomical events that mark our seasons. Because of the tilt of Earth's axis, the Sun appears to climb higher (in the summer) and sink lower (in the winter) in the sky as viewed from our planet. A solstice is a time when the Sun momentarily pauses in this apparent migration as it reaches the greatest extremes of its "wanderings" and begins to "move" back in the opposite direction. The word "solstice" comes from two Latin roots: "sol", which means "Sun", and "sistere", which translates as "stand still".

The December solstice is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The situation is, of course, reversed in the Southern Hemisphere - where the December solstice is the summer solstice. The solstice is commonly referred to as the start of winter (or summer), but it is actually the midway point of the season from an astronomical perspective. Since our planet's atmosphere and oceans "store" heat, temperature extremes tend to lag behind the dates of minimum (or maximum) heating by the Sun, so the coldest part of winter (or hottest part of summer) happens after the solstice.

Students (and unfortunately, teachers!) often mistakenly believe that the seasons are caused by variations in Earth's distance from the Sun. This misconception doesn't make sense when one remembers that the seasons are opposite in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres - why isn't it cold everywhere on the globe when the Earth is farthest from the Sun? As Earth travels around the Sun in its elliptical orbit, its closest approach to our celestial furnace is in January, during the depth of winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

To learn more about the solstice and seasons, check out these pages on Windows to the Universe:

Table of Contents

Galilean Satellites
What Causes Wind?
Meteor Shower
Science Literacy
Cycle and Recycle

2012 Hype

Winter PD
Current NASA Ops
Teachers-Costa Rica
Env Ed Award
Be a Martian!











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2012 - What's the Hype?

The following are thoughts from Patricia Reiff, Director of the Rice Space Institute. She is a great teacher of teachers!

A number of people have gotten nervous questions from students and the public about 2012. (Some cults have already gotten their followers to sell their homes and move underground!!) While having a stash of food and fresh water (or at least iodine tablets) on hand is not a bad idea (we Houstonians remember Hurricane Ike from last fall), you should know that Dec 21, 2012, is NOT going to be an especially dangerous time. It is not even a time of special planetary alignment. It will be the end of a major Mayan calendar cycle but then, like Jan 1, the cycle will start again.

For a good Q&A see the NASA page at: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/2012.html (It also links to a Sky and Telescope article).

Another good web page is from David Morrison via the ASP, talking about 2012 and Nibaru. Another web page worth reading is from Cornell.

Now, can we be sure that a huge asteroid or comet won't hit us unexpectedly? Of course not. But NASA has been cataloging "Near Earth Objects" to watch for objects that might cause us harm.

Finally, if you'd like to watch our latest planetarium show on asteroids, meteors and comets, you may do so free on our website. You may order full-length HD DVD versions of our planetarium show compendia, suitable to show in your classroom, for $10.

Thus, at the moment, it doesn't seem we have anything to worry about and 2012 is just a fictional movie. Although the description from the Book of Revelations (Chapter 8) of the end of the world sounds like a pretty decent description of a major multifragment impact (a la Shoemaker Levy 9), there is no known reason why any such impact would occur on Dec 21, 2012, and no object in the NEO list appears with any significant likelihood of impact on that date.

In fact, major disasters can occur at any time - floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, even the recurrent supervolcano of Yellowstone is "overdue"! So, as the Scouts say, "Be Prepared!", but don't fall for the hype of this particular day. You're a lot more likely to die from texting while driving than from being hit by an asteroid!

Announcements from Partners

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Winter Climate Discovery Courses Start Soon!

Registration for winter session NCAR Climate Discovery Online Courses is open through January 22th. This is a great time to get a head start on your professional development for 2010!

Are you seeking a K-12 professional development opportunity that will enhance your qualifications, competency, and self-confidence in integrating Earth system science, climate, and global change into your science classroom? This winter, NCAR will be offering a series of six- and seven-week online courses for middle and high school teachers that combine geoscience content, information about current climate research, easy to implement hands-on activities, and group discussion. The courses run concurrently January 22 through March 14.

  • CD 501 Introduction to Earth's Climate is designed to guide participants through the basics of climate science, integrating content, classroom activities, and community-building discussions to help middle and high school educators understand the answers to common questions about climate.
  • CD 502 Earth System Science: A Climate Change Perspective explores Earth as a system from the perspective of climate and global change, describing the interactions between the various parts of Earth systems including human activities, and how they all affect our climate.
  • CD 503 Understanding Climate Change Today presents some of the current and predicted impacts of global warming on our planet and human societies. This course explores how climate models are developed and used to understand likely scenarios of future climate and how current scientific research is improving the quality of climate predictions.

For complete course schedule and registration information, visit http://ecourses.ncar.ucar.edu.

NASA Connects with Students

NASA Launches Web Site for Teenagers
This month NASA announced the launch of a new website aimed at connecting teenagers with the educational, scientific, and career resources available at NASA. The site, called "Mission:Science", is designed to help students access NASA data for use in school projects, locate space-related internships, and conduct experiments with NASA scientists. It also has social networking tools, links to science contests and events, and information about college research programs. To access the site and learn more, visit

NASA Sponsors Student Water Recycling Competition
NASA is inviting fifth through eighth grade students to participate in a competition to design water recycling systems that could be used for future exploration of the moon. Teams of up to six students and one teacher or mentor should submit their proposals to NASA by Feb. 1st, 2010, and the winning team will receive a free trip to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Visit the Kennedy Space Center Education website for details.

2010 Toyota International Teacher Program to Costa Rica

The Institute of International Education and Toyota Motor Sales, USA, announced that they are accepting applications for the 2010 Toyota International Teacher Program to Costa Rica. This program is a fully funded professional development program for U.S. educators, and its aim is to advance environmental stewardship and global connectedness in U.S. schools and communities. The program will take place June 18-July 3, 2010. Full-time teachers and librarians for grades 6-12 can apply, and the deadline for applications is January 6, 2010. More information can be found on the program website.

Richard C. Bartlett Environmental Education Award

The Richard C. Bartlett Environmental Education Award is awarded annually by the National Environmental Education Foundation to an outstanding educator who has successfully integrated environmental education into his or her daily education programs. The award is given to a high school educator who can serve as an inspiration and model for others. The winner receives a $5,000 award and a trip to Washington D.C. where he or she meets with representatives from the environmental education community to further his or her education network. Do you know a teacher who stands out among the rest? If so, please nominate him/her for the 2010 Richard C. Bartlett Award. Nominations will be accepted through January 15, 2010. To learn more or to submit your nomination visit http://www.neefusa.org/bartlettaward.htm.

A Perfect Time to Join NESTA!

Are you looking for resources and support to help you bring the best to your students? Are you concerned about the state of Earth and space science education today? Now is the time to join the National Earth Science Teachers Association! Membership benefits are many and include receiving The Earth Scientist (a quarterly journal), full voting privileges, access to members-only areas of the NESTA web site and the monthly e-mail newsletter that shares new resources, opportunities, alerts, and upcoming events. There are also many special NESTA events at professional meetings. Plug into this supportive network. Cost is low! Join today!

NASA and Microsoft Work Together to Bring Mars to Earth

NASA and Microsoft Corp have collaborated to create a web site where members of the public can become citizen scientists and help analyze data from studies of Mars. The "Be a Martian" site will allow users to explore the details of the Martian landscape, help NASA scientists analyze survey data, and ultimately assist in producing better maps of the Red Planet's surface. The site also provides a virtual forum where users can ask questions and propose topics for online talks by Mars experts that will be given via the site. To learn more, and begin exploring, visit http://beamartian.jpl.nasa.gov

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The source of this material is Windows to the Universe, at http://www.windows.ucar.edu/ at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). © The Regents of the University of Michigan. Windows to the Universe® is a registered trademark of UCAR. All Rights Reserved. Site policies and disclaimer