We just wrapped up our middle school summer engagement workshop called Project HEAT and I’m exhausted (in a good way).
Working with a team from UNR Geography, the Raggio Research Center for STEM Education, and the Dean’s Future Scholars program, we hosted 16 Northern Nevada middle schoolers and immersed ourselves in a week-long environmental science experience.
What’s Project HEAT about?
The “HEAT” in Project HEAT stands for hot environments, animals, and temperature. Linking to our NASA-funded research project “Desert Birds in a Warming World”, we focused on how surprisingly variable temperature is in space and time, why temperature is important to plants, animals, and people, and how we measure temperature in the field and from space. Perhaps more importantly, this theme was a vehicle to get the kids some experience with science: field observations, brainstorming questions and hypotheses, designing experiments to test them, and analyzing and reporting their data. Along the way, the kids also learned a bit about GPS navigation, climate change, ornithology, remote sensing, physiological ecology, and geospatial science and engineering careers here in Reno and beyond.
The centerpiece of the week was a set of experiments that four different teams of kids designed, executed, analyzed, and reported. The teams were provided several micro temperature sensors called “iButtons”, constructed radiation shields, and deployed their sensor experiments in Washoe County’s Rancho San Rafael Park, right next to the UNR campus. In doing these experiments, the kids observed vegetation microclimates, topographic effects, and vertical stratification of temperatures. They also learned that science is full of surprises (e.g. being closer to the sun does not necessarily make something warmer).
Project HEAT – the bigger picture
The world is a big, complex place; we can’t learn everything about it by staying in a lab. We need the big picture that geography, geospatial data, and remote sensing can provide. But we also need to get into the field. Although it can be challenging and sometimes messy (for researchers and the data), going into the field keeps us both grounded and inspired. I think our kids walked away with a new perspective on science and geography that they did not have before. Personally, I was inspired by the kids’ reactions to seeing frogs in a pond, a lizard basking in the sun, fluffy killdeer chicks through 8x magnification, hyperspectral satellite applications, and their own portraits taken with a thermal camera. It reminded me how lucky we are to get to do science… and to get to do it with the amazing tools, places, and data that we have.
Thanks to all the people, contributors, and supporters that helped Project HEAT happen: Jacque Ewing-Taylor and Kerry Howard of the Raggio Research Center; The Dean’s Future Scholars program, staff, and mentors; Geography/LCB members Giancarlo, Denis, Andrew, and Keeley; our local business community, including Terra Core International, SpecTIR, and Swag | Blue Moon; the NASA New Investigator in Earth Sciences program for major project funding. And finally, thanks and good luck to this year’s outstanding project participants!