Adventures in Environmental Study And Science

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TWO recent events illustrate how the environment could provide perhaps the most important conjunction between education and science, with the added bonus of offering advances in both areas to girls and women.

First was the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on an 11-day environmental mission focusing on ozone in the atmosphere. Less publicized was the announcement (which happened to come the same day) of a government-backed program to get students around the world involved in collecting environmental data to be used by researchers.

Project GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) will also include special training for teachers. Funded with $2.5 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), GLOBE has generated interest in some 80 countries.

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The idea is to have students conduct earth studies in their own ecosystem (animal life, vegetation, soil condition), track weather patterns and air quality, and investigate local water conditions. The information they gather then would be funneled by computer through the Internet to a central team of scientists for evaluation.

This kind of hands-on experience is the best way to get young people turned on to scientific study and to help them get beyond the simplistic philosophical and political assertions about the environment to the ``good science'' which all sides agree is necessary to make difficult choices about pollution prevention and the conservation of nature.

Some far-sighted teachers are doing this already. For example, Tim Brandy's fourth- and fifth-graders at the Walker Middle School in Ashland, Ore., for several years have been designing, building, and maintaining a ``xeriscape'' that makes use of native plants that don't need artificial watering.

In the process of giving their school grounds a new look, they're absorbing a lot of math and science as well as a fresh appreciation for the mountain valley where they live.

The connection with the Atlantis and other space shuttles comes because space vehicles are being used increasingly to gain a fuller understanding of Earth's environment.

Aboard Atlantis is an array of instruments called ATLAS (for Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science). This and other equipment on recent shuttle flights is being used to study not only the ozone layer but also rivers, forests, and climate as well as the potential for earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions.

As such environmental projects gradually become a bigger part of what started out as a mostly-military enterprise, there will be more and more opportunities for women (who are more likely to earn PhD's in the sciences than Air Force or Navy pilot's wings) to become astronauts.

A few years ago it was a big deal to have a Sally Ride or a Kathy Sullivan be part of a shuttle crew. Now, nobody much notices that Ellen Ochoa is the payload commander on the Atlantis flight now under way. Or that physicist Linda Godwin, who was a mission specialist on the shuttle Endeavor's flight last April to collect environmental data, is deputy chief of NASA's astronaut office.

In many other ways interest in and concern for the environment are connecting education with science and producing new disciplines such as conservation biology.

There are great opportunities here, both for the individual and for society. And in a few years, I wouldn't be surprised to see one of the kids who worked on the Walker School's natural landscaping climb aboard a space shuttle as a grown-up scientist headed for another environmental adventure and the chance to make a real contribution.

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