NASA CERES S’COOL Project: Understanding clouds and how they affect our weather and climate

CreceliusArticles, Environmental Awareness Theme, Original, Weather

Figure 1: S'COOL observer participation Map, as of September 2011.

Sarah Crecelius1, Tina Coleman1, Tina Rogerson1, Preston Lewis1, Dr. Lin Chambers2
1 Science Systems and Applications Inc., 2 NASA Langley Research Center

Figure 1: S'COOL observer participation Map, as of September 2011.

Figure 1: S'COOL observer Map, as of September 2011.

Clouds are an important part of our atmosphere, and scientists around the world are studying how they affect our weather and climate. The Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy Systems (CERES) project was created at NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC) to address the role of clouds in Earth’s climate system. Student Cloud Observations On-Line (S’COOL) was formed as the Education and Public Outreach arm of the CERES project, and asks students around the world that same question: “What is the effect of clouds on the Earth’s climate?” S’COOL provides another piece to the [climate] puzzle, and was conceived to “foster the development of an informed and environmentally aware public.”[1] Creating the Project
The S’COOL project began in 1997 as a result of collaboration between Dr. Lin Chambers and a local middle school teacher, Eleanor Jones, in an effort to connect students in the classroom with the world around them — all while contributing to ongoing NASA research. The project involves students and the citizen science community in an authentic science experience. By making, reporting, and analyzing ground truth observations of clouds, students are able to assist NASA in the validation of measurements made by CERES satellite instruments.
Participation in the S’COOL project begins with a teacher signing up to be a S’COOL observer and registering their class under a specific latitude and longitude, from which observations are submitted. With their assigned username and password, the teacher is able to login on the S’COOL website to review the class’s observations and temporal satellite matches. These cloud observations are stored in the S’COOL database so the class has the ability to track its progress and compare observations to those of other classrooms around the world. While the original project was designed for the traditional school setting, in 2007 S’COOL created a Citizen Science extension called Rover, which allows observers to make observations from permanent and non-permanent locations. Each Rover observer reports their observations under a unique Rover nickname so that they can track their observations and temporal satellite matches. Much like the S’COOL observers, Rover observers can compare their observations to those of other roving observers.
Screenshot of the S'COOL website

Figure 2: The S'COOL website walks participants step-by-step through the cloud observation, reporting, and satellite comparison processes.

The S’COOL project started locally in Hampton, Virginia, but grew as a result of professional development opportunities provided for teachers. The S’COOL team has hosted K-12 teachers from across the country, providing them with training and collaboration on cloud observations and methods of instruction. Through the process of these training opportunities the project has gained more than 80 teacher-designed, interdisciplinary lesson plans focused on the observation, reporting, and comparison of clouds and their properties. The S’COOL project incorporates standards from all the branches of science within its lesson plans and activities, as well as a variety of math and English standards. Education specialists have realigned S’COOL’s lessons with the latest Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) and plan to align with the National Standards when they are released in 2013 [2, 3].
Experiencing the Science
S’COOL is a formal and informal educational tool designed to help teachers, students and the public understand the research question stated earlier: “What is the effect of clouds on the Earth’s climate?” The flexibility of the project allows observers to participate within a time frame that works for them, all while providing them with the opportunity to be actively engaged in a current NASA science mission (or a science experiment), experiencing the process of science. As observers, participants: 1) obtain satellite overpass schedules, 2) observe and report clouds within +/-15 minutes of the satellite’s passing, and 3) compare and classify the agreement between the ground and satellite measurements.
The S’COOL website guides participants through each stage of cloud observation and reporting in a detailed step-by-step process. To obtain satellite overpass schedules, a participant enters their login and password or observation location in latitude and longitude and requests an overpass schedule for the dates they wish to observe. It is important that observations are made within 15 minutes of the satellite overpass time, in order to observe the clouds at the same time the satellite is passing overhead. This way, the participant and the satellite are recording measurements on the same area of clouds.
The S’COOL project asks participants to collect data on cloud type, height, cover and related conditions for low, medium, and high cloud levels. The S’COOL website offers a printable report form that walks an observer through the observations on each cloud level, in the same format as that of the online input form. Supplemental cloud identification guides and tips and tricks are available online as well.
Image of S’COOL 'match' email, participant ground observation on the left, and the comparison Terra Satellite data on the right.

Figure 3: S’COOL 'match' email, participant ground observation on the left, and the comparison Terra Satellite data on the right.

Making the Link
Observers receive a “match” email when their observations have fallen within the overpass time period for the area they are observing. In the email, the user’s ground observation will be on the left and the satellite observation and images will be on the right. There also is a comment section at the bottom of the email that encourages observers to comment on their observation and contact the S’COOL team with any additional comments or questions. This comparison of observations helps the observer become more accurate with their cloud observations. The comparison email also provides a clearer picture of the clouds and satellite data validation. Additional tools for
observer data analysis include LANCE (a group of four near real-time data systems serving the Land and Atmosphere science community [4]) and MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer [5,6]) satellite imagery centered on the observer’s location for added satellite context. These satellite images add another level of comprehension to the observer’s cloud observation and understanding of the atmosphere as an Earth system. Along with the comparison email, observers can reference the S’COOL database to compare and analyze their observation and matching satellite data over time or alongside another classroom. This feature provides the ability to view observations over time and allows students to observe patterns and trends.
Figure showing Earth’s Energy Budget.  Different clouds behave differently when it comes to radiation effects (7).  Image Credit: NASA.

Figure 4: Earth’s Energy Budget. Different clouds behave differently when it comes to radiation effects (7). Image Credit: NASA.

Keeping the Science Accessible
A valuable program is one that works for the user, and the S’COOL project has continued to grow in popularity because it is a flexible program that consumes little time, costs nothing, and does not require expensive instruments to carry out successfully. As soon as a teacher registers or a participant self-assigns a nickname, they can start observing. Teachers have the ability to customize the project, using the S’COOL registration and Rover formats to create a curriculum that works for their classroom.
The S’COOL Project also has remained innovative and collaborative because of the accessible and enthusiastic support team behind the project. While the most recent satellite imagery provides S’COOL participants with cutting-edge science, the people behind the project provide a foundation of responsive and helpful support.
The S’COOL project has more than 3,700 registered participants from 83 countries. The project spans the globe, providing a better, more comprehensive picture of the clouds and complete satellite data that is accessible and understandable for participants. The project has collected more 111,500 observations and is continually growing, providing participants with the resources and data needed to observe the effect of clouds on their local climate as well as the ability to examine the complete picture of clouds in the atmosphere. S’COOL raises students’ understanding about clouds and how they change, and increases their understanding and perspective about how climate (affected by clouds) is ever-changing.
[1] G.G. Gibson, B.A. Wielicki, et al. Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System, CERES, NASA’s Earth Observing System [Online].
[2] Virginia Department of Education. Standards of Learning Documents for Science [Online].
[3] Jay Madigan (NASA Langley Research Center). Education Standards most closely relate to S’COOL (Individual States). [Online]
[4] Kevin Murphy, NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System, LANCE FAQ [Online].
[5] Brandon Maccherone, National Aeronautics and Space Administration About MODIS [Online].
[6] Jay Madigan (NASA Langley Research Center). S’COOL Guide to MODIS Rapid Response [Online].
[7] Paul Przyborski (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), Clouds & Radiation [Online].