Wisconsin Idea grant to support hands-on climate change research in rural classrooms

UW-Madison Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment brings climate change research to communities and classrooms across the state

Winding across the heart of Wisconsin is an s-shaped area known as the Curtis Tension Zone. Marked by a distinct separation in the landscape, this zone is where the southern prairie region and deciduous forests meet the northern coniferous forests. It’s also where scientists have noticed pronounced impacts of climate change, something co-collaborators Michael Notaro, associate director of the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research (CCR), Rose Pertzborn, Space Science & Engineering Center outreach program manager and a group of students and citizen scientists plan to investigate as a part of a three-year Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment initiative.

A prestigious endowment established to fund projects that foster public engagement and the advancement of the Wisconsin Idea, the grant was awarded to Notaro and Pertzborn for their project titled, Advancing Climate Science Education, Inquiry, and Literacy Across Rural Wisconsin Communities. In essence, this funding will allow Notaro and Pertzborn to provide a number of educators across the Curtis Tension Zone with the equipment and training they need to collect data on climate variability and change and its impacts while also making climate research a part of their curriculum and community engagement efforts.

The Curtis Tension Zone is marked by a distinct separation in the landscape, this zone is where the southern prairie region and deciduous forests meet the northern coniferous forests. Credit: David Mladenoff, Forest Landscape Ecology Lab

“This program will offer students the opportunity to experience hands-on inquiry as they learn more about the changes occurring in their community,” said Notaro. “They will learn to observe and measure changes in the earth systems including the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and soils.”

He also added that districts participating in this program will become key partners in campus and international climate research as the data collected by the students will be added to NASA’s international Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program.

“This is a program initially developed by NASA in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF),” said Pertzborn, who serves as the official Wisconsin designated GLOBE partner. “Essentially, it’s an international program that enables students and teachers to collect ground-based data using calibrated instrumentation to actively engage citizen scientists. This data is then used by researchers, especially in conjunction with their satellite data. The data collected by our students will not only support this program but also the research being conducted by Michael and other scientists at CCR, at the Nelson Institute and around campus.”

NASA states that to date, there have already been more than 130 million measurements from more than 10 million students in 113 countries around the world uploaded to the GLOBE site. In order for the data from this project to become a part of the GLOBE program, however, classrooms must be utilizing GLOBE approved and calibrated equipment, which is something the Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment funding will help provide for each participating district.

“We need to make sure they have very specific and calibrated instruments to ensure consistency across the collection sites,” said Pertzborn. “This will ensure that those north of the tension zone can confidently compare their findings to those south of the tension zone.”

Pertzborn and Notaro will also be providing all of the necessary training to the educators and participating in follow-up visits to the classrooms and communities as needed.

“We have an introductory three-day training that has been scheduled for August with the Butternut School District, which is the first district we will be working with,” said Pertzborn.

Notaro added, “We will be going over the introductory aspect of GLOBE, how to set-up and use instrumentation, how to plot and upload their data, and how to work all of this into the curriculum.”

Following the initial training and experimentation in the Butternut School District, which is north of the tension zone, Pertzborn and Notaro will partner with districts south of the Curtis Tension Zone, including those in the Cross Plains area. During this time, Pertzborn and Notaro will also be working with the Ice Age Trail Alliance, which includes a number of volunteers who will be studying the trails and providing meta-data, or observational data, from areas around the Curtis Tension Zone.

“As climate change begins to become noticeable, it is expected that the zone will gradually retreat northward with warming,” said Pertzborn. “The beauty of the participating Ice Age Trail partners is that the Curtis Tension Zone is roughly an east to west zonal area and the Ice Age Trail intersects with that in a roughly north to south pattern.”

Pertzborn said this will allow scientists, citizen scientists and students to observe changes in all directions and pinpoint where the most pronounced climate change impacts are happening. It will also allow many districts and communities to be a part of the data collection, engaging more community members in the sciences and connecting community members of all ages.

“The great thing about the Ice Age Trail organization is that they have a huge number of volunteers, many of whom are longtime residents and have a historic memory of what the environment was like in their local communities,” said Pertzborn. “This is important as we work with youth who are looking to understand the climate change impact in their community.”

For Notaro and Pertzborn, it’s this type of community engagement that is at the heart of their Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment project, which they hope will continue to bring communities together to learn about and participate in the sciences well beyond the three-year project timeline. They also see this project as an opportunity to expand the sciences, exposing kids in isolated rural communities of the state to Earth science and giving them access to scientists.

“We really want to provide the tools and the motivation for teachers and community members to discuss climate change,” said Notaro. “We hope this project will give more depth to the science education experience and inspire future pursuits into scientific careers while leveraging research happening on campus.”

By Bekah McBride

This story was originally published on the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies website. Cover image credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources