Website Helps Students Investigate Climate Science

The Center for Educational Technologies at Wheeling Jesuit has developed a website to help students learn about the possible impacts of volcanoes on climate change. The website lets students become scientists who make their own conclusions based on real data and images from NASA.

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The Center for Educational Technologies at Wheeling Jesuit has developed a website to help students learn about the possible impacts of volcanoes on climate change.
The website lets students become scientists who make their own conclusions based on real data and images from NASA.

The website, "Exploring the Environment" is designed for middle and high school students and teachers. The site was created in 1996, but it's being upgraded with new learning modules and pictures.

CET director, Chuck Wood studies volcanoes and is the lead scientist on the project. He said some volcanoes can act as an air conditioner for the Earth.

"In the stratosphere, the sulfur dioxide makes small little droplets that intercept rays of sunlight. These sunrays would normally go straight through the atmosphere and hit the ground and warm up the surface of the Earth but when there are these little droplets in the upper atmosphere they block those rays of sunlight and reflect them back into Outer Space so the Earth gets cool following a big eruption," Wood said.

The Earth may cool by a half of degree or more after a volcanic eruption and in local areas it might cool 2 to 3 degrees.

He said that may not sound like a lot, but the change can have a major impact on weather conditions.

"I did a study after a volcanic eruption in the 1790's from Iceland. That volcanic eruption put out so much sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere that it snowed all across the Southern U.S. and the following winter and ice flows came down the Mississippi River and jammed the harbors at New Orleans and ships sailing in the Gulf of Mexico came across huge flows of ice that were floating there.

"George Washington was kept inside his house, Mount Vernon for over six weeks because the snow was too deep to get out, so a small change in temperature can have very large local effects," said Wood.

Wood said the climate impact from a volcanic eruption only lasts a couple of years.

Not every eruption affects climate change. Each year, about 60 volcanoes erupt and most of them are small.

The effect on climate change depends on how much sulfur dioxide the eruption produces and how high the plume reaches into the atmosphere.

"The Mount St. Helen's eruption in Washington State in the 1980's made no difference in climate change because it was too small," said Wood.

Laurie Ruberg, principle investigator on the project said the website is growing to include other aspects of climate change using NASA data and images.

"They are looking at what is happening in the climate? Are the ice caps really melting? Well we can pull up images that show 10 years ago the size of the ice cap, then yesterday the size of the ice cap and we can show them how to measure that.

"We can show them how the tools that are used by scientists to indicate the changes and also how to quantify it," said Ruberg.

One of the project's goals is to help students approach a controversial subject like climate change using scientific research. It helps students develop the skills to present a position and defend it with data.

Tamie Shiplett, curriculum writer for the project was a high school science teacher before joining the project.

She recently demonstrated the upgraded website at the West Virginia Science Teachers Association conference in Wheeling. She said the website is a valuable tool for educators.

"It causes the student to be the one responsible for the investigating and the learning. The teacher is no longer dictating the information they are facilitating the learning. They are providing the student the materials and skills necessary to master concepts which then the students apply to real life situations to problem solve and use critical thinking and come up with a real solution," said Shiplett

The new version of "Exploring the Environment" website will be released by mid-December.