Currently, hundreds of satellites orbit the Earth, many with instruments that improve our lives and define our lifestyles. Satellite-based technology makes it possible to watch our favorite television shows, navigate unfamiliar roads and plan weather-dependent activities a week ahead.
Satellites also collect data that aren’t as easy to explain, such as the NASA instrument to be launched this spring to measure sea surface salinity over the globe.
Annette deCharon’s job is to explain exactly what that instrument, dubbed Aquarius, will do once it’s launched in 2011 and why its mission — to collect data on salt concentrations at the ocean surface — is critical for NASA and for society as a whole.
From her mission control-style desk in an office at the University of Maine Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine, deCharon’s job as senior marine education scientist is to make ocean sciences more accessible for various audiences. Her work with NASA/Aquarius Education & Public Outreach targets the public, students from elementary school to college, and science communicators from classroom teachers to ocean researchers.
“Many people don’t really interact with the ocean at all, so they don’t think about how it affects them, but it’s basically the key driver of climate,” says deCharon, who teaches a UMaine Semester by the Sea class and directs one of the national Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE). “In all of our education and outreach programs, we really try to emphasize that point. One approach is through visualization of ocean data and concepts. This is important because the ocean is so remote that people can’t readily identify with it. But if you give them visuals that help them see the big picture and how things interact, they are more likely to believe its relevance.”
The educational materials deCharon and her team produce help demonstrate why monitoring sea surface salinity is key to understanding what’s happening in the oceans.
“Most people know the oceans are salty, but they don’t know that patterns of salinity change geographically and over time,” she says. “If there’s a lot of rain or if ice melts in a region, the sea surface will be less salty. If you get higher evaporation, seawater will be saltier. Sea surface salinity changes can tell us how the water cycle is changing over the ocean. That’s important because 86 percent of global evaporation and 74 percent of global precipitation happens over the oceans.”
Over its three-year mission, Aquarius data will be used to produce monthly maps of global sea surface salinity. Within a few months, Aquarius will collect as many sea surface salinity measurements as the entire 125-year historical record from ships and buoys. The newest findings also will be used in climate prediction and El Niño forecasts.
To increase awareness and understanding of salinity, deCharon and her team have developed a website with a wealth of information, including trivia (bet you didn’t know, for example, the word “salary” may derive from the money paid to Roman soldiers to buy salt), online data tools and suggested activities for students from elementary (a potato float helps children understand the concept of relative density) to high school (an experiment that splits saltwater into its constituent ions).
The activities are aligned with National Science Education Standards and Ocean Literacy principles, and are evaluated to ensure their efficacy.
As ensconced as deCharon is now in the world of science education, she didn’t start out that way.
A University of California – Davis graduate in geology, deCharon earned a master’s degree in oceanography at Oregon State University. She worked at Brown University as a research assistant in the Department of Planetary Geology before being hired as a mission planner for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
“I discovered that I am pretty good at taking lots of input and coming up with plans that satisfied the needs of various types of people, including NASA engineers and scientists,” she says. “That’s something you usually don’t get during your scientific training.”
After several years, deCharon went from mission planning to public outreach on NASA’s TOPEX/Poseidon mission, the pioneering satellite that measured sea surface height during the 1997–98 El Niño event. DeCharon assisted in media campaigns, produced outreach materials and created some of NASA’s early educational websites.
It was an exciting experience merging science, technology and education, deCharon says, and a springboard for her role as director of COSEE-Ocean Systems.
The UMaine-based COSEE center brings together scientists and educators in peer-to-peer interactions, both in person and online. Educators contribute their understanding of how people learn, thus helping scientists better communicate their research. Scientists contribute their content knowledge and expertise in connecting complex ideas.
“By developing web-based tools that support scientist-educator collaborations, we are pushing the boundaries of ocean sciences education,” says deCharon, who recently received another three years of COSEE funding. “We look forward to making significant impacts in Maine, New England and beyond.”