Sun, Jun 25, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Cloud gazers

Several schools are making a valuable contribution to a NASA-led project that aims to unlock the secrets of clouds

By Ginger Yang  /  STAFF REPORTER

A Stevenson instrument station.

PHOTO: GINGER YANG, TAIPEI TIMES

In high schools across the world, students regularly gather at specific times round Stevenson screens, white louvre boxes filled with scientific instruments, to make measurements and observations. The students are part of a study being conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

While studying at Taipei First Girls' High School (TFG, 北一女中), Sandy Lin (林孟湘) participated in the project.

Every break time when the satellites Terra and Aqua passed over Taiwan, she and her classmates in the Earth Science Club would congregate round the Stevenson screen. Together they filled in sheets downloaded from NASA's Web site with information on the temperature, humidity, and types of clouds in the sky. Sometimes, Lin would take pictures of the clouds. Her shots won three consecutive cloud photo contests held by NASA, beginning in 2003.

Now, Lin is a history major in National Taiwan Normal University (國立台灣師範大學), and has handed the task of observing and recording the weather to new members of the Earth Science Club.

The project, Students' Cloud Observations On-Line (S'COOL), involves over 1,700 schools across the US and in 60 other countries, according to the S'COOL's Web site. Eight schools in Taiwan participated in the project last year. All participants document surface-based observations and post the results on the Web site.

The rational for S'COOL is vali-dation. Clouds are powerful agents of global climate change as they affect overall temperature and the energy balance of the Earth, thereby playing an important role in controlling the planet's long-term climate.

To understand the impact of clouds over time, satellites take measurements. The data from NASA's ERBE and CERES satellite instruments, for example, have made and continue to make significant contributions to the understanding of clouds.

The satellite information must be validated by measurements from aircraft and ground stations. This is where S'COOL comes in.

"Because NASA needs data from so many locations, it is a really brilliant idea to use school kids from all around the world to collect data," said Wu Yu-ya (吳育雅), an earth science teacher at TFG. "This project encourages students to turn their eyes from textbooks to nature; to see the sky and the clouds."

Lin recalls throwing herself into the S'COOL project with great ardour. She never missed a single observation, even though other students sometimes found this routine boring. She enjoyed the whole process. "I still miss the Stevenson screen," said Lin.

"NASA was a remote, impossible dream, but this project makes each of us become a `member' of NASA. I realized that I can contribute to NASA," Lin said.

Lu Chao-ying (盧超英), a TFG geography teacher, believes this sense of involvement and participation is important for students: "Our students have the potential to achieve something big, to be part of an international project," she said.

A new generation of students at TFG and Wu's withdrawal from the project has seen the initiative pass to other schools, including Zhongshan Girls' Senior High School (中山女高) and Tatung High School (大同高中), which were ranked 12 and 23 among the 1,700 participating schools last year.

This March and April, Zhongshan school moved up to 10th place, an indication of the high quality and consis-tency of its observations.

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