Reading, Writing, and Remote Sensing: NASA Earth Observing Data Go to School

My NASA Data uses NASA Earth observing data to improve data literacy for students in grades 3-12.

​When Sonia Balani returned for her senior year this fall at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, NJ, NASA Earth observing data went with her.

“So far, we’ve used soil moisture and soil temperature data and we’ve also looked at global chlorophyll levels seasonally,” Balani says. “We looked at the change in chlorophyll levels seen in the satellite data and also identified some abiotic factors that could influence those levels of chlorophyll.”


Balani is one of thousands of students in grades 3 through 12 using data from NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) collection in resources created by the My NASA Data initiative.

Established in 2004, the My NASA Data team at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, uses EOSDIS data along with data from other federal agencies as the foundation for a wide range of lesson plans and resources designed to help students improve data literacy, explore the natural world, and, perhaps, begin a journey to a career in the natural sciences. These resources are reviewed and vetted by teachers and other key stakeholders and align with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). From May 2020 to May 2021 the My NASA Data team provided virtual training to 1,700 teachers and recorded more than 700,000 digital engagements with My NASA Data resources.

“There are a number of amazing products NASA develops for researchers and great products for the general public, but we felt that the educator audience needed something a bit more specific that was tied to standards and allowed [teachers] to more easily access data aligned to what they were doing in the classroom and what students would find interesting,” says Jessica Taylor, a NASA physical scientist and the My NASA Data principal investigator (PI).

While NASA data are openly available to anyone, these data can be challenging – and even intimidating – for users new to the data or unfamiliar with model representations of the world. This is especially true for students working with science data for the first time.

Seven of the top 10 datasets incorporated into My NASA Data products over the past year (numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10) are part of NASA's EOSDIS collection. Credit: NASA ESDS from My NASA Data metrics.

“Most kids don’t have good spatial awareness; it’s something that has to be taught,” says Balani’s teacher Natalie Macke. Macke has used My NASA Data resources with her advanced placement and college prep environmental science and her honors and college prep chemistry students for more than six years at Pascack Hills High School. “Spatial context is really difficult for these kids because they don’t have as much experience interpreting models of data, understanding the limitations of that interpretation, and then thinking if there is a context for the reason why a particular model was chosen and if there are limitations to the model.”

My NASA Data resources include lesson plans, mini lessons, story maps, data visualizations, and even a data search tool designed specifically for students. Data are arranged by sphere (atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere), with a special section (Earth As a System) showing how these spheres are interrelated. The EOSDIS data included in the resources are mainly processed Level 2 and Level 3 data (rather than raw satellite data) since these products are more easily integrated into the My NASA Data Earth System Data Explorer tool, which relies on gridded global and regional data.

“We prefer data that have global coverage or at least cover North America and the United States,” says Dr. Brad Hegyi, the My NASA Data Earth system data advisor. “We need gridded data that are in the right format [NetCDF] and that help reveal scientifically important patterns in the data. We also prefer data that cover a long time range – years to decades – and that originate from the most current mission measuring that variable.”

In his data advisor role, Hegyi identifies data that can be incorporated into My NASA Data resources and reviews scientific literature to see how scientists are using the data to describe specific phenomena. He then curates the data with the My NASA Data team to ensure teachers can easily find the best data to feature in their lessons about a particular phenomenon.

The My NASA Data team does not work alone, though. A nationwide network of product reviewers and key stakeholders provide input and test products before these resources reach students. Product reviewers are generally active teachers, like Macke, who test products to identify potential issues and logistical hurdles, such as the time a lesson plan takes to implement, the amount of color used (since this might require costly color copies), or the formats in which data are presented.

“It’s one thing to write a lesson; it’s something else to actually do the lesson,” says Macke. “The [My NASA Data] team can take our suggestions and put together some solutions to make things more accessible by changing how information is presented or giving some additional information that was missing in terms of context.”

Along with product reviewers, key stakeholders also provide valuable input. These are individuals who provide professional development to teachers or who coordinate curricula for school districts. As My NASA Data PI Taylor points out, this group provides the big picture perspective of what’s going on in science education and with data literacy in classrooms.

My NASA Data is predominately funded by NASA’s Science Activation Program through an award called GLOBE Mission Earth, and Taylor sees My NASA Data as complementary to the Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program. GLOBE provides students with hands-on experience collecting data at the local level, such as weather observations, tree height measurements, and soil observations. These activities enable students to see the data they collect as a dataset as they learn how to analyze these local data. Students can then take the data literacy gained from this foundational experience to the next level – analyzing and working with data they did not collect, such as remotely sensed NASA Earth observing data.

As Taylor explains, My NASA Data resources teach students how to use NASA data to gain a global perspective of what they should expect to see in their local data. “GLOBE provides the [data collection] experience; it provides the localization – my place, my location,” she says. “Then we add on My NASA Data to extend this local data to a regional or global scale.”

As a student new to using Earth observing data, Balani appreciates the chance to work with NASA data. “Sometimes you don’t even realize that you can have access to these [data],” she says. “You feel like it’s more for people like scientists and other professionals. To know we have access to [these data] as high school students is pretty cool.”

Data Literacy Cubes may be used with graphs, data tables, and mapped images of NASA Earth science data. Accompanying question sheets are available for Novice, Developing, Proficient, and Advanced levels. Credit: My NASA Data.

The My NASA Data team is working on several new and updated resources. As Taylor notes, remote learning requirements over the past year caused by the ongoing pandemic forced educators to rely more heavily on digital activities and lessons, and she observes that My NASA Data is well-positioned to support these needs.

A new video series created by Hegyi and the My NASA Data development team called UnEarthing Data helps students learn how to see patterns in data and show the decision-making processes scientists use to analyze data. “It’s the scientific thought process we’re trying to highlight,” says Hegyi. “After watching these videos we want students to be able to look at the data and say ‘These sets of patterns are interesting and important to knowing more about a phenomenon in the Earth system, such as phytoplankton’ or ‘There’s this area with a lot of phytoplankton that happens to be next to a cold ocean current and these might be related.’ [This] gives students the tools to start asking questions and it starts to stimulate their curiosity to explore more data.”

The team recently updated their popular Data Literacy Cube Guide. Along with generic question sheets, word lists, and task cards, the centerpiece of the Guide is the Data Literacy Cube that has data analysis prompts printed on each side (Examine, Search & Find, Analyze, Ask, Connect, Assess). Students roll the cube and apply the data analysis prompt on the cube face to a data printout or data visualization. The question sheets help teachers guide the data analyses conducted by their students. A specialist working with English language learners evaluated and provided improvements to these question sheets, which are aligned to the Lexile Framework for Reading levels and WIDA language development standards.

For the My NASA Data team creating these data literacy resources and the educators using them, the fact that NASA Earth observing data are fully and openly available is a tremendous benefit for students.

“These NASA data are theirs,” says Taylor. “We want students to get excited about the fact that NASA has data that can help them better understand the planet, what’s going on regionally, and even locally.”

High school senior Balani takes a more pragmatic view. “If I end up going into more science classes at college, I [know] NASA will have the information ready for me to use,” she says. “I’m excited to use it more and take advantage of the resources that I now know we have.”

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