May 2012

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What a Spring!

What an amazing spring we're having here in the U.S.!  The month of March was the warmest March on record (since record keeping began in 1895) in the contiguous U.S., with over 15,000 high temperature records broken.  The average temperature of 51.1°F was 8.6 degrees above the 20th century average. Winter 2011-2012 was the fourth warmest winter on record, with a seasonal average temperature of 36.8 degrees Fahrenheit, 3.9 degrees above the 20th century average.  This spring has been so warm that many spring flowers bloomed several weeks to a month early!  The famous Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington D.C. last month was almost devoid of blossoms, because the trees had bloomed well before the date of the festival, leading to disappointment for many visitors.

Perhaps this unusually warm spring, coupled with wild weather and the extremely early and destructive tornadoes that hit numerous states in late February, are responsible for changes in the climate change awareness of the U.S. public.  A recent study by the Yale Project on Climate Change found that a large majority of Americans attribute recent extreme weather events to climate change.

While we know that no single weather event can be associated with climate change directly, consistent trends observed year after year can be signs of change.  NOAA has recently updated their "climate normals", calculated over 30 year intervals, and the new results show warming in all states compared to the previous set of normals.

Thanks to everyone that participated in our workshops at NSTA in Indianapolis in March!  We were delighted to welcome over 1,100 people to our events in total.  Thanks for all the support from our volunteer community, and to the generous organizations and individuals that supported NESTA's efforts!  We also welcome several hundred new Windows to the Universe Educator Newsletter subscribers - I hope you enjoy your inaugural newsletter issue!

Glaciers: Then and Now

Glaciers Then and Now is an activity for upper elementary and middle school levels, and is also popular with general public audiences. Students match photographs of Alaskan glaciers from the early part of this century with photographs that were taken at the same locations within the last few years. Students take note of what in the photographs has stayed the same and what has changed. The class wraps up with a group discussion about the current state of alpine glaciers and climate.

The amazing glacier photographs in this activity come from a special collection at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The current image of each pair presented in the activity was taken by U.S. Geological Survey scientist Bruce Molnia. Repeat photography projects like his are giving scientists studying the impacts of climate change a visual record of change over time. A similar repeat photography project at Glacier National Park in Montana is ongoing. There, scientists estimate that all glaciers will have melted by 2030.

Space Weather and Magnetism As We Approach Solar Maximum

Many of you may have noticed a recent resurgence of news about solar flares in the media, with many fascinating photographs and videos taken by solar spacecraft equipped with incredible imaging capabilities of dramatic solar phenomena.  These images provide wonderful real-world displays of aspects of fundamental physics and evidence of Sun-Earth coupling at the large scale – many of which are visible (thanks to these images and video) on televisions and computers in our classrooms, homes and offices!  Check out NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory website for a wonderful collection of images and videos.

Is this evidence of some ancient Mayan prophecy set for 2012? Is the world going to end?

No. It’s not the end of the world – we’re just moving into the phase of the solar cycle when we can expect to see dramatic phenomena on the Sun impacting life here on Earth.  The summer issue of NESTA's quarterly journal, The Earth Scientist, will include a paper on Space Weather and Magnetism, highlighting topics which regularly generate interest in the classroom including solar activity and magnetic field reversals, as well as classroom activities and resources available on Windows to the Universe.  If you're not a member of NESTA already, join today, so you will be sure to get a copy of this issue!

Swirls on Mars

There have been some recent interesting observations of swirls on the Red Planet.  One observation, by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, revealed a 20 km high dust devil towering above the flat, dust-covered Amazonis Planitia on March 14, 2012.  The plume was reported to be only three-quarters of a football field wide at the surface (about 70 meters).  An animation of the dust devil is available here.

HiRISE also recently spotted amazing corkscrew snail-like patterns in the Athabasca Valles region of Mars, thought to have been formed by catastrophic lava flooding.  These patterns are occasionally seen in pahoehoe lava flows on Earth, when two lava flows pass each other at different speeds or directions, resulting in swirls and bunches.  On Earth, these features are typically only a few feet wide, but these swirling features on Mars are more than 100 feet across!  A paper describing this discovery is available from Science Magazine at

Visit the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter site for more wonderful images, and more information about these discoveries.

Hardiness Zones Revisited

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced a new version of its Plant Hardiness Zone Map, a useful tool for gardeners and researchers that was last updated in 1990. The map divides the United States, including Puerto Rico, into 13 separate zones representing regions of minimum average winter temperatures.

Zone boundaries in the new map have shifted in many parts of the United States and two new zones have been added. Knowing your hardiness zone will help you use catalog and plant descriptions to choose garden plants that will thrive in the area where you live.

Visit Earth Gauge for more information on plant hardiness.

Sedimentary Rocks Contain Clues to Past Environments

Sedimentary rocks contain clues about their past!  Environments change over time.  By looking at sedimentary rocks in an area you can figure out what the environment was like when those rocks were formed. Environmental features, like swamps, dunes, and oceans, contain different types of sediments. The type of sediment and the way it was deposited determines the kind of sedimentary rocks that will eventually be formed in a particular area. Check out this page to view photographs of different environments and the rocks that are made in those environments.

Pump it Up!

A reminder from the Environmental Protection Agency

Properly pumped-up vehicle tires save fuel and save you money - up to 11 cents per gallon! Check your car's tires and pump them up to the recommended pressure.  The EPA is asking college students across America to host tire inflating events to help raise awareness. Find out more!

Classroom Activity about the Solar System

Are you going to end your year by teaching about space, the solar system, stars and galaxies? If so, check out the Great Planetary Debate Activity. It has students work in groups of two to research a given planetary body in the solar system. The students will then "defend their planet/moon" while competing against other teams in a Great Planetary Debate. This is a great alternative to the solar system report, poster board or travel brochure you may have used before.

I used this activity in my high school Earth science classes, and I have to say that students were more excited about this Debate than about any other activity we did during the year!

Meteor Showers and Halley's Comet

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower peaks this year on May 5 and 6. Unfortunately, it will likely be drowned in the light of the largest full moon of 2012, but you might still catch a few of the brightest meteors in the moonlit sky.

The Eta Aquarids and the Orionid meteor shower in October are the results of Earth passing through the debris left behind by Halley's comet. This famous comet is named after English astronomer, mathematician and physicist Edmond Halley who had suggested in 1705 that the comet observed in 1531, 1607, and 1682 was the same one, and predicted its return every 76 years.

Halley's comet has actually been observed since 240 BC and is next scheduled to return in 2062. During its last appearance in 1982, the Giotto mission and several other spacecraft flew past the comet and collected a wealth of data on its different regions.

Biogeochemical Cycles

What does a frog in a swamp have in common with a limestone rock? It's the same thing that they have in common with a blade of grass, and the air in a balloon. They all contain atoms of carbon!

Certain elements, such as carbon and nitrogen, move through the living and nonliving parts of the Earth system. The movement of these elements is known as the biogeochemical cycles. These cycles are a great way to emphasize to students that the Earth is an interconnected system because these elements travel through the biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and the geosphere.

Windows to the Universe includes many resources for teaching about biogeochemical cycles - from classroom activities to online content and interactives. These resources are highlighted for educators on the page: Resources for Teaching about Biogeochemical Cycles.

Table of Contents

Glaciers Activity
Space Weather
Swirls on Mars
Hardiness Zones
Sedimentary Rocks
Pump it Up!
Great Planet Debate!
Meteor Shower
Biogeochem Cycles

Rocks and Fossils

Am Wetlands
Space Day 2012
Citizen Sci Lesson
Endangered Species
Bike to Work Day
Kids to Parks
EE Week Photo/Blog
Hurricane Prepare
Water Contest
Space Station Events
Transit of Venus
Six Words
Target Asteroids!
Project Noah
Comet Quest App
Flying Wild
Tsunami Debris!
GeoSpectrum Free
AGU Blogosphere














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Educator members of Windows to the Universe should log into the website and go to the Member Special Offers page for details about these opportunities. If you're not a member, join today and find out how to apply to these opportunities! Additional information for non-members is available at

May is American Wetlands Month: Learn! Explore! Take Action!

May is American Wetlands Month, a time when the EPA and its partners in federal, state, tribal, local, non-profit, and private sector organizations celebrate the vital importance of wetlands to the Nation's ecological, economic, and social health. It is also a great opportunity to discover and teach others about the important role that wetlands play in our environment and the significant benefits they provide - improved water quality, increased water storage and supply, reduced flood and storm surge risk, and critical habitats for plants, fish, and wildlife.

EPA encourages all Americans to consider doing the following to help celebrate the month, wherever they reside:  learn about wetlands, explore a wetland near you, and take action to protect and restore wetlands.

Space Day 2012 - May 5, 2012

Space Day Family Day, an annual event sponsored by Lockheed Martin, is scheduled for Saturday, May 5, 2012, at National Air and Space Museum locations. At the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy location in Chantilly, Virginia, visitors will marvel at Discovery, the space shuttle that is now on display. Enjoy exciting presentations and activities that focus on the history and achievements of the 30-year space shuttle program. Hear astronauts and other special guests talk about the past, present and future of space exploration, and enjoy hands-on activities and demonstrations.

At the National Air and Space Museum located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., visitors will learn about the Hubble Space Telescope, and see a full-size Hubble test telescope. The day will also offer an array of hands-on activities, discussions, book signings, and demonstrations.

Space Day welcomes kids, parents and museum enthusiasts of all ages to enjoy this day dedicated to all things space related!

Citizen Science Lesson Contest

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is looking for inquiry and citizen science resources for Birds, Butterflies, Bullfrogs and Beyond: Bring Biology to Life through Citizen Science, to be published by NSTA Press.

Each lesson that is published will be credited to its author(s). The lead author of each lesson will receive a copy of the published book!

Submit a lesson suitable for middle and high school with a web component related to biology and life science.  The submission deadline is May 15.

BatsLIVE - A Distance Learning Adventure! Live Webcast on May 17th

Bats are vital to healthy ecosystems and human economies worldwide. As primary predators of night-flying insects, bats consume enormous quantities of agricultural pests and reduce the need for chemical pesticides.

BatsLIVE is a free education program for educators and children in grades 4-8 that will bring bat conservation to life in the classroom or community.

Check out resources from BatsLIVE and mark your calendar for a live webcast on May 17, 2012!  Find out more about bats by visiting the Year of the Bat (2011-2012) web site.

Endangered Species Day - May 18, 2012

Endangered Species Day provides an opportunity for schools, libraries, museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, agencies, businesses, community groups and conservation organizations to educate the public about the importance of protecting endangered species.  The Day also highlights the everyday actions that individuals and groups can take to help protect our nation’s wildlife, fish and plants. For teachers and other educators, there are special educational materials.  Find an Endangered Species Day event in your area on or around May 18.

Bike to Work Day - May 18, 2012

May 18, 2012, is National Bike to Work Day.  The League of American Bicyclists, who also promotes Bike Week and Bike Month during the month of May, started national Bike to Work Day. Since its origin, this day has grown and developed into a nationwide event. Local, regional, and national bicycle advocacy groups participate to encourage people to commute to work using a bicycle. There are even pit stops along some bicycle routes that provide cyclists with snacks and drinks!

Join thousands of other Americans for Annual Bike to Work Day. Whether you are environmentally conscious or just love the exercise, biking to work is a great way to avoid the commuter traffic and stay in shape!

2nd Annual National Kids to Parks Day Event – May 19, 2012

The 2nd Annual National Kids to Parks Day is on May 19, 2012.  The National Park Trust created National Kids to Parks Day to empower kids to discover and enjoy parks in their community. The Day's goal is to inspire healthy outdoor recreation and to cultivate future park stewards. In the first year on May 21, 2011, nearly 200 mayors coast to coast signed official proclamations and many hosted events in their community parks to celebrate the day.  In addition, more than 15,300 families participated. This year promises to be an even bigger event!

National Kids to Parks Day is officially in support of the First Lady's Let's Move Outside! initiative.

Please visit the brand new Kids to Parks Day website where you can find resources on how to plan your event and other helpful information!

2012 EE Week Photo Blog Contest

Do you have an inspiring story and photo of how you and your school or organization are engaging students in environmental education? National Environmental Education Week wants to hear about it! Simply upload your photos and stories to the EE Week Photo Blog.

Each photo blog entry must include a photograph and accompanying blog text no longer than 1,500 characters that clearly describes the environmental education activity shown in the photo. Release forms are required for each identifiable person in a photo. Entries will be judged on the quality of the photo and blog text, visual appeal and the student learning that took place during the activity.

First, second and third place winners will receive a new digital camera and winning entries will be featured on EEWeek.orgLearn more!  Submissions will be accepted through May 31, 2012.

Hurricane Preparedness Week 2012

History teaches that a lack of hurricane awareness and preparation are common threads among all major hurricane disasters.  By knowing your vulnerability and what actions you should take, you can reduce the effects of a hurricane disaster. Hurricane Preparedness Week 2012 runs from May 27th through June 2nd.  Each day will focus on a different topic like hurricane basics, storm surge, winds, flooding, planning and taking action.  Are you ready?

Sense of Water Contest 2012

2012 is the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, and this year's Sense of Wonder contest will focus on water. To honor this anniversary, the contest has been renamed the Sense of Water Contest for 2012.  Entries must be from a team of two or more persons - a young person and an older person - and can be poetry, essay writing, photography or dance.  The deadline for entries is June 1, 2012.

NASA Seeks Hosts for Space Station Interactive Education Events

NASA is seeking formal and informal education organizations to host live in-flight interactive conversations between the next generation of explorers and astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Comprehensive proposals are being accepted for missions scheduled between September 2012 and March 2013. The deadline to submit is Friday, June 1, 2012.

During ISS Expeditions 33 and 34, NASA crewmembers, Sunita Williams, Kevin Ford and Thomas Marshburn, will participate in 20-minute question-and-answer sessions with students who will learn what it is like to live and work in space. While participants see and hear the crewmembers live from space, the crew does not see the audience.

U.S. education organizations including school districts, museums, science centers, national and regional education organizations and local, state and federal government agencies are eligible to participate. Organizations may apply individually or work together.  NASA provides this opportunity at no charge to the host institution and will work with the organization to plan the event.

To participate in an online session and to obtain information about expectations, content, format, audience, proposal guidelines and forms, send an e-mail to or call 281-244-7608.

2012 Transit of Venus: Sun-Earth Day (Shadows of the Sun)

This year's grand Sun-Earth Day celebration is on June 5, 2012, and will focus on the Transit of Venus! NASA Edge will be presenting a live, exciting web cast from atop the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

The Transit of Venus is among the most rare astronomical phenomena and won't happen again until the year 2117. So prepare now, and don't miss out on this extremely special event!

Got Six Words for the Planet?

You use thousands of words daily. But can you use only six?  Write a six-word micro essay about the environment. Be funny or poetic or serious. All submissions will be posted on SMITH and some will be posted on Submit yours now through June 30. It's the only Earth we have!

Need some inspiration?

Sweetest tweets still come from birds.

Many nations. One planet. Our home.

It was never ours to destroy.

Endangered species have no exit strategy.

Fill your home with curly lightbulbs.

Visit to find out more!

Target Asteroids! New Citizen Science Project is Underway!

A new NASA outreach project will enlist the help of amateur astronomers to discover near-Earth objects (NEOs) and study their characteristics. NEOs are asteroids with orbits that occasionally bring them close to the Earth.

A new citizen science project called "Target Asteroids!" will support NASA's Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security - Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission objectives to improve basic scientific understanding of NEOs.  OSIRIS-Rex is scheduled for launch in 2016 and will study material from an asteroid.

Amateur astronomers will help better characterize the population of NEOs, including their position, motion, and rotation.  These citizen scientists will also be asked to do photometry (which measures brightness) and spectroscopy (which measures the colors or wavelengths of light) in order to learn more about these asteroids. Professional astronomers will use this information to refine theoretical models of asteroids, improving their understanding about asteroids similar to the one OSIRIS-Rex will encounter in 2019, designated 1999 RQ36.

OSIRIS-Rex will map this asteroid's global properties, measure non-gravitational forces and provide observations that can be compared with data obtained by telescope observations from Earth. In 2023, OSIRIS-REx will return back to Earth at least 2.11 ounces (60 grams) of surface material from the asteroid.  This sample will help us investigate planet formation and the origin of life, and the data collected at the asteroid will also aid our understanding of asteroids that can impact Earth.

Nowhereisland Public Art Project

Nowhereisland is a public art project conceived by artist Alex Hartley, who is known for his photographic and sculptural depictions of remote landscapes. It is one of 12 art projects across the UK, funded by the Arts Council of England, which will form part of the Cultural Olympiad in summer 2012.

Imagine an Arctic island travelling south - a landscape on the move. After leaving the Kingdom of Norway, the island enters international waters and is declared a new island nation - Nowhereisland. This new nation continues its journey to the southwest coast of England, where it opens its embassy and participates in the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

Will you become part of the story of this new nation?  Sign up today!

Project Noah

Project Noah is an online and mobile location-based application that encourages people to reconnect with nature by documenting local wildlife. The tool harnesses the power and popularity of smart phones to collect important ecological data and help preserve global biodiversity.

You can earn patches, identify wildlife, go on missions and become a citizen scientist. Join today!

Get a Free App - Comet Quest

Get Comet Quest, a new action game developed by JPL about Rosetta, the ESA space mission that will orbit a comet, drop a lander onto the comet surface, and observe 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as it approaches the sun during perihelion.

Here's a synopsis to whet your app-etite!

The Rosetta spacecraft approaches Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Using its thrusters, Rosetta goes into orbit around the comet nucleus. Now you, the player, get to take over the spacecraft in its mission to learn about the mysterious comet. First, you must drop a lander on the nucleus. To land it in an optimum location, your timing must be excellent!

Then, you begin to observe and record interesting events as they occur: craters or cracks opening up in the comet’s surface, water or gas jets erupting, solid chunks of rock and ice flying off, the coma and tail growing brighter. It’s a very busy and exciting place! As solid chunks fly off, you must also avoid them by speeding up or slowing down the spacecraft. At certain times Earth comes into radio view and, when at the proper location in orbit, you must transmit the spacecraft’s data to Earth. Also, the lander transmits its data, which you must capture and relay to Earth with your next transmission.

All these accomplishments earn you points. Accumulate as many points as possible during the fixed game period. Earn bonus points by taking a short, optional comet quiz at the end of a game. Beat your best score or compete with your friends! provides lessons, activities, handouts and articles from PK-12th grade that apply across the curriculum.  Educators can register school and community gardens, communicate with other programs, and engage in meaningful discussions about garden activities.  Complete with how-to guides, garden stories, grants and resources, this free resource helps educators of all ages engage children in hands-on learning opportunities.

Learn more by accessing the EE Week Gardens & Schoolyards Planning Toolkit.

Flying Wild: An Educator's Guide to Celebrating Birds

Flying WILD's focus on migratory birds is designed to inspire young people to discover more about the natural world.  It encourages students to get involved in activities that promote environmental learning and stewardship.  The Flying WILD program places special emphasis on reaching urban schools with student populations that traditionally receive few opportunities to participate in environmental education initiatives.

The Curriculum Guide's many activities can be used to teach classroom lessons or to initiate service-learning projects that help birds and improve natural habitats.

Be on the Lookout for Debris from the Japanese Tsunami!

According to predictions by NOAA scientists, debris from the tsunami that devastated Japan could reach the United States throughout this spring. However, there is still a large amount of uncertainty over exactly what is still floating, where it is located, where it will go, and when it will arrive.

Information on significant marine debris sightings in the North Pacific Ocean and on the United States western coast is greatly needed and can be reported to the NOAA Marine Debris Program at Educators who might be interested in taking students into the field to conduct surveys should send an email to to receive a shoreline monitoring field guide. Additional FAQs are available at

MissionExplore.Net is Now Live!

Created in partnership with The Workshop, MissionExplore.Net is now live!  Discover a world of slightly warped adventure by finding, doing and reporting on missions created by a range of Challengers including National Geographic Education and OPAL.

Designed to inspire and reward explorers, the site is an innovative way to engage people in exploring and seeing the world in new ways.  Start today at

Get Geoscience Community News in ‘GeoSpectrum’

The spring issue of AGI’s GeoSpectrum, the geosciences newsletter, is now available online. This issue’s highlights include a full range of news and information from AGI’s 50 member societies, as well as several opinion pieces, public policy news, meeting announcements, and educational, scholarship and career opportunities in the geosciences.  GeoSpectrum is available as a free PDF at  

To stay up-to-date on the latest news, see the GeoSpectrum blog, featuring short notices on upcoming events, calls for nominations, and other time-sensitive postings at


URBAN EARTH is a project to (re)present some of the largest urban areas on our planet by exploring, experiencing and expressing thoughts about them.  Discover more about the project, join a planned walk or organize your own.

AGU's Blogosphere

Did you know that the American Geophysical Union hosts a collection of Earth and space science blogs?  Explore topics like extreme weather, landslides, volcanoes, astronomy, earthquakes and climate change.  And, of course, you and your students can join in discussions about these topics!

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The source of this material is Windows to the Universe, at from the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA). The Website was developed in part with the support of UCAR and NCAR, where it resided from 2000 - 2010. © 2010 National Earth Science Teachers Association. Windows to the Universe® is a registered trademark of NESTA. All Rights Reserved. Site policies and disclaimer.