NASA News & Feature Releases

NASA Education Program Fosters Climate of Discovery

Posted May 9, 2019

To the students of Carol Wang-Mondaca, a participant in NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies Climate Change Research Initiative, the science of climate change was once an abstract concept.

“For them to think about climate change when they're thinking about after-school jobs to help pay for rent, or going home to take care of their younger siblings — when they talk about climate change or research, it's very abstract,” said the high school science teacher at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village, N.Y.

Photo of Carol Wang-Mondaca using a microscope

Carol Wang-Mondaca, CCRI teacher participant, counted a type of plankton called foraminifera during her research experience in the lab of NASA GISS / Columbia University scientist Dorothy Peteet. (Credit: Carol Wang-Mondaca)

Today, however, her students are planning to collect and analyze data through the NASA GISS internship program, to investigate human impacts on the environment like elevated soil nitrogen and carbon from exhaust fumes in their own community.

“When you see that data, it really lends to the urgency of what's happening now,” she said. Wang-Mondaca participated in the program under the mentorship of Dorothy Peteet, NASA GISS senior research scientist and adjunct professor at Columbia University.

The Climate Change Research Initiative (CCRI) connects the lab, the field and the classroom to provide a structured research and mentorship experience for educators and students. NASA GISS researchers and graduate students mentor local high school teachers and students in studying a variety of climate change topics — from simulating global climate change in ancient times, to understanding the urban heat island effect, assessing effects of volcanic emissions on local and global scales, and investigating sea level rise and human impact on urban marshlands.

During the school year, the high school teachers and graduate students intern with scientist mentors at NASA GISS and familiarize themselves with their mentors' research goals. The graduate students gain research experience in their disciplines, while the teachers create Next Generation Science Standards-aligned unit plans, allowing any educator to translate NASA data and observations into instructional toolkits with the same data analysis and computer science techniques used by GISS researchers. Undergraduate and high school interns join the team in the summer, and together they complete the project and prepare it for publication and presentation at conferences and symposia. Some studies are submitted for peer-reviewed publication. Teachers and graduate students can participate for up to three years.

Earth science teacher Nicole Dulaney of Hillcrest High School, a Title I school in Jamaica, Queens, New York, presented a session on NASA education content and resources at her school during her tenure in the CCRI program. Her assistant principal was so impressed that she not only helped Dulaney establish an Earth science research class using NASA assets, but also built a new computer lab to give her students the technology they needed for their data analyses.

Dulaney and her students studied topics like the Earth's energy budget, the balance between incoming solar energy and greenhouse gases, through specific projects ranging from modern climate though past ice ages and volcanic eruptions. Along the way, her students learned programming skills that could benefit them in a variety of STEM fields.

In addition to participating directly in the research of her NASA GISS mentor, physical research scientist Allegra N. LeGrande, Dulaney taught her students larger life lessons through the challenging work during her three years in the program.

Photo of four members of volcanos research team in front of research poster

Nicole Dulaney (far left), CCRI teacher participant, and other members of GISS physical scientist Allegra LeGrande's research team at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center poster presentation in summer 2018. (Credit: Matt Pearce)

“We look at the challenges directly through the data,” she said. “We talk to them about how it's okay to struggle; this isn't easy. It's not like other classes — they have to discover and explore the unknown, trying to achieve their long-term research goals while facing uncertainty. We have to take each day step by step.”

That step-by-step process is where graduate students like Elizabeth Najman come in. Najman, a Master's degree student at Stony Brook University, is the graduate intern on another of LeGrande's research teams. She has studied LeGrande's research on climate variability of the ancient past and the factors that may have influenced it, such as solar and ozone variability plus volcanic eruptions. It is her job to break down the complexities of the research into understandable problems for students to solve.

“One of the reasons I was really excited about this project… is this issue of communicating science, of making it accessible and transparent and not scary to people,” she said. “I think when people step through the logic themselves and come to the conclusions, it's a much stronger effect than when you're just handed someone else's conclusions.”

Climate change communication outside the classroom is an important focus of the program. Teachers participating in CCRI present multiple STEM engagement events within their own professional learning communities. They discuss their research projects, share NASA STEM education resources and build new STEM networks and relationships. Dulaney and LeGrande submitted Dulaney's unit plan, “Earth's Energy Budgets,” to NASA's Science Mission Directorate Product Review, where it was accepted for publication on their first draft. This resource makes NASA observations accessible to teachers around the country with guided NASA toolkits for analysis.

While the program's main focus is to improve STEM education using NASA's unique capabilities, it is also designed to benefit the GISS researchers, said Matthew Pearce, the program's creator and NASA GISS education officer.

Group photo of GISS summer interns in 2018

The CCRI interns gathered along with other GISS interns in New York City in summer 2018. (Credit: Matt Pearce)

“The CCRI program's vertical design contributes substantially to the scientists' research, and provides an immersive STEM engagement research experience for all team members,” he said. “It also improves STEM education by immersing the public in NASA's work, enhancing STEM literacy and inspiring the next generation to explore.”

By including advanced graduate students and teachers with expertise in the mentors' fields of study, the CCRI program benefited the researchers as well as the students, Pearce said.

LeGrande agreed. “Having other members there who are already trained and know the analysis we're going to do — who have not only the big picture, but also the daily tech skills to do what we're working on right now — is helpful for all levels,” she said.

Whether NASA researchers and students connect through data analysis in the classroom, or through field experiences like the ones Wang-Mondaca is designing for her class, it is a relationship that can change students' lives.

“You can see the parents visibly get so excited and happy about it,” said Wang-Mondaca, who had four students apply for NASA internships last year. “We're bringing something bigger to the school, something better. We're elevating our expectations, not just teaching for the test. We want them to be college-ready and career-ready.”

To learn more about the CCRI program, visit

By Jessica Merzdorf, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

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