Students learn about on-the-job science

kids at 8th grade science dayWhat do Halloween costumes, caramel apples, and 8th Grade Science Days have in common? They are all treats that kids from the Boulder Valley School District can look forward to every October. It’s been a ten-year tradition for NOAA in Boulder, Colorado to host a select group of eighth graders from 10 participating schools in the district.

“Because we can only handle about 150 students at a time, we’ve broken the event into two days,” says Annie Reiser, a Communication Specialist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL), and coordinator of this year’s event. “It takes a whole team of outreach staff and volunteer scientists to put together the event that corresponds to about four classroom periods and lunch each day they visit.”

The school busses begin to dot the upper parking lot between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m., and kids stream into the David Skaggs Research Center lobby and gather under the suspended GOES Satellite model where a NOAA guide greets their designated school groups. Because the science presentations are held in various locations throughout the building, group hosts lead the students, teachers, and chaperones down the long hallways reminding everyone to keep their noise down, as this is a working environment.

“That’s one of the special things about our collaboration,” says Platt Middle School teacher, Ellen De Backer, who spearheaded the first 8th Grade Science Days and has been organizing the school end of it since then. “We get to introduce the kids to working scientists, take a peek at their labs and workplace and find out first hand what it’s like to be a scientist.”

Students learned about research ranging from how NOAA uses lasers to probe the atmosphere, to the meteorology behind predicting, for example, devastating floods, to learning about the Antarctic ozone hole, climate change, and life at the South Pole. Enthusiastic scientists and presenters gave the students a glimpse into the science behind destructive tsunamis, earthquakes, solar flares, and avalanches, sparking their interest with cutting-edge visualizations, hands-on activities, and personal stories.

“Those are some of our staples,” says Reiser, “but every year we try to change things up a bit and offer new sessions.” This year two new presentations resounded with the kids; a tag-team demo in front of the Space Weather Prediction Center where they learned about why we even need to predict weather in space and what exactly geomagnetism is. Through a hands-on activity, students mimicked magnetic force structures with a model sun and very strong magnets.

A few groups were also introduced to various 3-D visualizations and some of the exciting new game technology that is being developed to animate our scientific data and models. Using a video wall display, 3-D glasses, Occulus visor, and vibrating stylus, students tried out some of the educational exercises, which use “worm holes” that lead to various virtual worlds.

Every group was scheduled for NOAA’s most popular tour stop, according to De Backer, a visit to Planet Theater to view NOAA’s illuminated and animated Science On a Sphere (SOS).® This year’s presenters, Hilary Peddicord and Beth Russell of ESRL, coordinated with teachers to customize instruction about earth science pertaining to 8th grade learning standards.

“In SOS, the students finally get to talk about what they’ve learned in science this year. Using the sphere as a visual aide, we shuffle through all the major topics: nature of science, weather, plate tectonics, atmospheric and ocean circulation,” according to Peddicord.

On the value of 8th Grade Science Days, De Backer shared, “The parent of a former student recently told me, ‘Do you remember that student who was so social in 8th grade and you thought you didn't make a difference? Well, she is now in college, and majoring in meteorology. All because you took her on the NOAA Science Day field trip where one of the presentations sparked her interest!’ Thank you for doing that field trip!”

NOAA Boulder will undoubtedly continue to host the annual event.