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Montverde Academy’s Eyes on the Ground Sharpen NASA’s View of the Sky

They can seem like angels, appearing in the sky almost magically, white, wispy, deceptively clean, almost pure. Sometimes they spread out, as if on wings, dissipating before we can look up twice. Other times they persist, and intersect, crisscrossing in a kind of dance.

Jet contrails may be spellbinding, but they are not friends of the sky. Trails of ice particles that form around bits of airplane exhaust, contrails compromise the quality of the atmosphere and scientists’ ability to study it. At times, they look so much like clouds, even NASA satellites, looking down from 400 miles, get confused.

It takes eyes on the ground, looking up, to see the difference; eyes like those of middle school students Charlotte Newton, Sara Echavarria, Ryan Sapp, and their classmates at Montverde Academy in Florida, whose observations of clouds and jet contrails have impressed NASA scientists as the students continue to collect data from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their teacher, Dr. Caryn Long, has only been teaching space science at Montverde Academy for a year, but she has begun to transform the school’s entire K-12 science curriculum into a GLOBE program. She started with a handful of sixth graders. “GLOBE is the very first unit I teach,” she said. “We focus solely on GLOBE, teaching them about the atmosphere, clouds, and weather phenomena.”

Building on a professional relationship and friendship with Marilé Colón Robles, project scientist for NASA GLOBE Clouds at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Caryn implemented a pilot project protocol for studying jet contrails. “The kids identify the type of contrail, the type of plane that formed it, and can use the Flight Radar 24 app to ID the specific flight. They report the model, altitude, and direction,” she said.

Marilé and Caryn were colleagues at NASA Langley, where Caryn served as an education specialist for many years before returning to the classroom. “When I told Marilé I was going back to teaching, she asked if I would consider bringing GLOBE with me. It was a no brainer,” Caryn explained. “It seemed to me that the cloud protocol was a natural way to teach some abstract concepts.” This was before Caryn came to Monteverde Academy at a smaller, Title I school. “My fifth graders took off with it, and the GLOBE involvement brought a lot of notoriety to the school. Local leaders were interested in the NASA connections, and the kids, who think everybody at NASA is an astronaut, learned that’s not necessarily true.”

When the opportunity came to teach at Montverde, “I told them about the program and my Dean was enthusiastically all for it,” said Caryn.

Sara at the GLOBE Webcast
Montverde student Sara participates in
the NASA Fall Cloud Challenge event.

In October 2019, Marilé pitched the idea of bringing national attention to Caryn’s GLOBE program to coincide with a significant atmospheric event: the arrival over Florida of a plume of Sahara Desert dust. “Caryn’s students have done such an amazing job,” said Marilé, “that we highlighted them with a NASA Facebook Live as part of the 2019 GLOBE Fall Cloud Challenge.”

Caryn knew that event would build excitement for GLOBE: “What’s really neat from all of this, the whole school has seen a real value in the program. I’m encouraged by my sixth graders who went to the lower school to be trainers for fifth graders to use the cloud protocol.” And this summer, “the school asked me to lead the STEM Integration Initiative, elementary through high school. I asked Marilé if she would be interested in Montverde becoming a complete GLOBE school and we’re super excited about it. The potential for doing real science with these kids is so beneficial, and not many programs offer that.”

Explaining why the students’ jet contrails data matters so much, Marilé explained that the view from the ground looking up is just as important as the view from space looking down. “We match student observations to data from satellites like CALIPSO,” she said. CALIPSO points a laser down through the atmosphere “like cutting through cake layers. But if there are too many layers, most of these instruments have trouble seeing through them.”

From the students’ vantage point, “they’re looking at the bottom of clouds. Satellites see heights, we see types, and types are important for forecasting weather.” The information sent to NASA by students essentially “completes the story” needed to fully understand atmospheric dynamics.

And, she adds, “satellites can mistake jet contrails for clouds. There are different reasons for scientists wanting to know more about the presence and impact of contrails,” she said. “Some want to see what engine types are more efficient, others are trying to figure out if changing to a different fuel might help. If we can reduce the amount of ‘clouds’ put out by humans, it might help with global warming.”

Caryn asked her students this summer to name the most memorable thing they will take with them 20 years from now about sixth grade science. “Ninety percent said the GLOBE protocols,” she said. “They’re immersed, and they know their voices are being heard by NASA scientists all over the world.”

One of the scientists who took notice of Montverde’s work is Kevin Czajkowski, a professor at the University of Toledo in geography and planning. “As a GLOBE scientist, I look at the data on the GLOBE database online. I find that to be fun, a de-stressor from something hard. I noticed that Caryn’s students had taken a ton of cloud observations. I contacted Marilé and said, did you see those observations from Florida?”

Caryn’s students speak with excitement about not only what they’re learning, but how they’re learning.

GLOBE Student Sara
Montverde student Sara learned that "if
there are too many contrails they can
affect the Earth."

“We look at the sky,” explains Sara Echavarria, age 12. “We see if it’s clear, with or without clouds, usually cumulus but also altocumulous. We see if the ground is muddy, if it’s rainy, and take pictures of the sky, east, west, south, north. We study the clouds to see how important they are to our energy budget. We send our submissions to NASA and they send back pictures from satellites that connect to what we are doing.”

“I learned about the layers of the atmosphere, like the troposphere, where we don’t have as much turbulence, and that’s why planes fly there,” Sara explained. “If there are too many contrails they can affect the Earth. Some types of planes give more contrails, so we trying to minimize them.”

Sara likes that “Dr. Long involves us in everything. She doesn’t just take out textbooks and tell us to read this page. She shows us and does it with us. She is very fun, but can be strict, and she understands us.”

What does Sara think about now when she looks at the sky? “I think about climate change. I used to think, it’s all going to be over, but Dr. Long taught us we’re not really making a difference and we have to try our best. New York could be flooded, and Florida, too. And we don’t want that.”

GLOBE Student Ryan
Montverde student Ryan looks forward to
Dr. Long's class because "it's really fun".

Ryan Sapp, also 12, said he has learned a lot about “how clear the sky is, temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure. And jet contrails—they’re like air pollution and scientists want to find which planes make them so they can build better engines.” Ryan likes noticing how the sky changes during the day. “In the morning, fogs and mist, in the middle of the day, cumulus, and a lot of times at the end of the day, no clouds.”

Ryan said Dr. Long “makes classes really fun and we actually look forward to her class because it’s not boring.” His mother, Iresha Corea-Sapp, commented that Ryan is “very inspired by Dr. Long. She’s so animated the way she teaches and uses innovative ways to teach them. It’s inspiring for me to see Ryan’s passion for the subject.” Her son is already contemplating a science career: “I want to be an engineer,” he said.

Charlotte Newton, a 12-year-old sixth grader, is impressed how she can “press submit on the app and it all goes straight to NASA. “They have a whole map and you can see all the information we put in, a map of the world showing different spots where people have taken observations.”

“Since coming to sixth grade,” Charlotte said, “Dr. Long has been very inspiring. I want to work at the NASA control center and she used to work at NASA.” Today, when Charlotte thinks about the sky, she said, “I think of so many things. Before, I used to just think, there’s a puffy cloud, but she taught us so much about what’s going on with our atmosphere. You can see all the different cycles going around the Earth. I never thought of that before.”

Caryn has noticed a change in how her GLOBE students think. “Their analytical skills are so much sharper and clearer. They’re able to take information on the news or in public and relate it to what they’ve learned,” she said.


Caryn has noticed a change in how her GLOBE students think. “Their analytical skills are so much sharper and clearer. They’re able to take information on the news or in public and relate it to what they’ve learned,” 


“A good example of this, I was talking to the kids on Zoom and some brought up on their own that there aren’t many airplanes in the sky anymore. They correctly identified the fact of fewer planes, fewer contrails, and started to talk about how the atmosphere could recover. We started pulling out data on how the pandemic has impacted positively on the environment. These are things 12- and 13-year-olds wouldn’t usually talk about.”

Caryn has seen the signs in her sixth-grade students that GLOBE is creating lifelong citizen scientists, and perhaps some professionals. “Some have come up to me and said, what do you have to do to be an astrophysicist? One student got so engaged in the atmosphere and the clouds, I put her in touch with Marilé, who is personally mentoring this young lady who is from Puerto Rico…like Marilé.”

The potential for Montverde Academy (an institution already celebrated for its academic excellence, graduation rate, and college acceptance rate) to become an all-GLOBE school is vast, Marilé believes. “The beauty of Montverde is that more than 90 countries are represented in the student body. Every single GLOBE protocol will be done, building leaders who will become part of society at some point. They will have GLOBE in their pockets. They can contribute. They can make a difference.”

—C. Ralph Adler

type: globe-news

News origin: United States of America