Sunday, September 4, 2011

Data Interpretation and Hurricane Tracking

Hurricane season always provides an authentic opportunity to learn about the process of science. These days, there are numerous sources and tools on the internet that provide access to live weather data, which can be used to practice and refine data interpretation skills. In our school district, data interpretation is one of the essential middle level science learnings:
"Students can interpret, analyze, and evaluate data and recognize bias in order to formulate logical conclusions."
This past week, Hurricane Irene struck the eastern United States, causing major flooding and destruction in many areas. A plethora of science instruments—land-based, sea-based, plane-based, and satellite-based—monitored Irene's vital signs as it trekked across the planet and affected millions of humans. These instruments captured a wealth of data and images that can be used in the classroom to help students better understand hurricanes as well as reinforce how science works.

Hurricane Irene, Doppler Radar Animation,
courtesy of the Weather Underground
Precipitation data from land-based Doppler radars is one of the types of information collected during a hurricane. Doppler radars produce colorful images and animations that can be used to stimulate student conversations about science—sort of a digital dissection. During Hurricane Irene, I captured a Doppler radar animation centered around the hours when the cyclone first made landfall on the outer banks of North Carolina (click the image to the right to view the animation). The animation loop provides enough information to discuss and infer basic weather variables such as tropical cyclone circulation, forward storm motion, wind speed, wind direction, precipitation rates and amounts, and more. (Details for capturing a Doppler animation loop are at the end of this post.)

When using images and animations, I ask students three main questions:
  1. What do you see? (observations) 
  2. How do you know? (evidence) 
  3. What can you infer? (interpretation) 
I have students practice the "What do you see?" and "How do you know?" questions first as small table groups, then share the "What can you infer?" question as a whole class. During the table discussions, I circulate around the classroom as a background observer and facilitator—listening to their conversations, asking clarifying questions, and nudging everyone in the group to participate equitably. There are no right or wrong answers during these small table discussions; it is an opportunity for students to hone their science skills. This activity empowers students to have authentic peer conversations about real science data, a basic "process of science" principle. Additionally, this activity allows students to practice their powers of observation and interpretation together in preparation for hands-on lab experiments in which they will need to collect and interpret their own data.

Capturing a Doppler Animation Loop

There are numerous sources of weather information on the internet, but my favorite is the Weather Underground. Their maps, graphics, and animations are well-designed, easy-to-read, colorful, accessible, and appropriately scientific, which makes them an ideal source for the science classroom.

To capture a Doppler animation loop, do the following:
  • Go to the Weather Underground website, and of course bookmark/favorite it for future use.
  • Select the Radar link under the Maps & Radar tab on the main page.
  • Select one of the Doppler radar sites (indicated by + symbols) closest to the area of interest.
  • To generate an animated loop on the radar page, adjust the Radar Controls on the right side of the page, then click the Update Radar Map button. For Hurricane Irene, I modified the Animate Frames box to 40, and the Frame Delay to medium, while leaving the other options at their default settings.
  • Once the full animation loads, select the View/Save This Image link at the bottom of the loop to display the animation on a separate web page. Then, save a copy of the animation to your computer (usually File-->Save As…). This animation can be replayed on your favorite web browser for later classroom use.

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