If students at New Zealand schools boast of helping out US space exploration agency NASA, they don’t have their heads in the clouds. In fact, from early next year, the students of 15 New Zealand schools will be playing a key role in a NASA study of clouds.

The students at the New Zealand schools — two schools in Auckland were the first to sign up — will be part of NASA’s Cloud Sat programmed.

Cloud Sat is an experimental satellite that will use radar to measure the vertical structure of clouds and cloud properties from space. The launch of Cloud Sat is expected early next year.

Because NASA needed some way of checking what was happening on the ground, they approached the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) programmed in schools to help out.

“They asked if I could help out with organizing the collection of data on cloud cover from here on Earth for comparison,” says GLOBE’s New Zealand convener, John Lockley who is a senior tutor at the School of Education at the University of Waikato.

Already, says Lockley, the New Zealand schools are making an impact on the project.

It is a proposal by Glen Eden Intermediate School on how to measure the cloud cover that is being considered over the next three weeks by the other schools involved. If accepted, the Glen Eden protocols will be used by all the schools involved in Cloud Sat for the life of the two- to three-year project.

The Auckland intermediate’s proposal suggests that students measure not only the amount of cloud in sky and the type of cloud but also the air temperature, the rainfall and possibly even humidity. The students will make the observations every 16 days, coinciding with the satellite passing overhead.

“The climatologists can’t actually see what’s inside the clouds. They don’t know how much of it is water vapor, how much is ice, and the likelihood of it falling out of the sky,” explains Lockley.

“This is where the students come in. They are going to give some information into the system,” says Lockley. “That’s why we have scientists that say they will partner with these schools because it is valuable information.”

It will help the scientists, who are using satellites to look inside the clouds, to know if the data from the satellite tallies with what is happening under the clouds. “It’s the kids on the ground who are going to say yes, this is the cloud we saw and on this many days it did rain,” says Lockley.

The Cloud Sat project has been established to understand more about the influence clouds exert on Earth’s weather and climate. Because clouds have such a large effect on the Earth’s radiation budget, even small changes in their abundance or distribution could alter the climate more than the anticipated changes in greenhouse gases, aerosols, or other factors associated with global climate change.

And, says Lockley, it isn’t just science, math and technology that that the students learn with GLOBE.

“Already we are seeing that schools are communicating within that network. So, schools from Australia are talking with schools from New Zealand are talking with schools from America and sharing not only information about the project…but other things like when are your school terms, what do you eat from lunch and those sorts of things.”

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