Solar Radiation: Harnessing the Power: Using NASA Data to Study Alternative Energy Sources

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Finding real-world scientific data for use in the science classroom can be a challenge. Oftentimes, this data is too complex for students to really use. Although lab exercises do have a place in the classroom, the use of appropriate, authentic data sets can provide a global picture while helping students build both conceptual understanding and understanding of the data-analysis process.

My NASA Data (Chambers et al. 2008; see "On the web") is a teaching tool available on NASA's website that offers microsets of real data in an easily accessible, user-friendly format--and there are over 60 high school-level lesson plans available. The data sets are created at the NASA Langley Research Center from atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, land surface, and ocean data gathered by near-Earth satellites and ground-based sources. Teachers can retrieve raw data to place into spreadsheets, graphs, or grids. Available data sets include information about air quality, atmospheric radiation, clouds, precipitation, surface conditions, and surface cover--to name a few. A good way to begin is to visit the website and browse the data sets available. By first visiting "Science Basics" and then the "Learn More about Our Data" pages, teachers can identify the temporal and spatial limits of these data sets.

In this article, we describe a lesson plan based on an activity from My NASA Data, in which students explore parts of the United States that they would want to live in if they lived in a solar-powered mobile home. The lesson focuses on alternative energy sources and demonstrates how easily teachers can create their own activities using data of their choice. The goal is to move students away from using simplistic data. In the lessons offered through My NASA Data, students have the opportunity to graph and analyze the same data that NASA scientists might use. Data analysis and graphing skills are taken beyond the typical science classroom. Instead, students begin to use authentic NASA data--making science more relevant and exciting.

The lesson plan presented in this article provides valuable skills in graphic differentiation and can be used in both middle and high school classes during units on solar energy, electricity, and electromagnetic spectrum. It can also be used in science research classes as a data-analysis lesson, or in units on light, energy, alternative energy sources, technology, and Earth science systems.

Alternative energy sources lesson

Background

Alternative energy sources are increasing in popularity and becoming easier for consumers to use. Solar-powered walkway lighting, attic fans, and pond pumps are readily available at home improvement stores. Unlike fossil fuels that will one day be depleted, solar-powered homes and vehicles use renewable energy. Students see this technology as a positive step toward energy solutions in this country; however, some do not fully understand how such devices benefit consumers.

Photovoltaic (PV) cells--which are often found in roof-mounted solar panels, solar cell-phone chargers, and solar walkway lighting--gather energy from the Sun and convert it into electricity. Their effectiveness varies, depending on factors such as latitude and cloud coverage. Knowing how much solar energy is available for these cells can assist those who use them in their homes and businesses.

Solar energy data are gathered from various polar orbiting and geostationary weather satellites, including the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) and the Polar Operational Environmental Satellite (POES). The "Monthly Surface All-Sky Shortwave Downward Flux" data are compiled by the Surface Radiation Budget (SRB) project and offered through the My NASA Data Live Access Server (LAS; see "On the web"). The SRB project combines satellite data and models to provide a consistent data set for understanding Earth's surface radiation. …

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