A Website to Help Teachers Talk Up a Storm

03/02/98
USC Sea Grant is launching an online workshop to help educators understand the El Nio phenomenon.
by Meg Sullivan
Phyllis Grifman, associate director of outreach programs for USC Sea Grant, and Douglas Sherman, director of USC Sea Grant and chairman of the geography department. Sea Grant's on-line workshop this month will let teachers interact with experts in marine biology, oceanography and climatology.

Photo by Irene Fertik
A new Website from USC's Sea Grant project is designed to help school teachers catch the wave of interest in El Niño.

"El Niño Workshop Online for Educators," which launches Monday, March 2, will provide strategies for using the Internet to teach kindergartners through high school students about El Niño, the occasional disruption of the ocean-atmosphere system that has dramatic consequences for weather around the globe.

"Thanks to the Internet, for the first time in history the general public has up-to-the-minute access to much of the same information on a major climatic phenomenon as the scientific community," said Douglas Sherman, director of USC Sea Grant and chairman of the geography department. "This is a great opportunity to convey the wonder and excitement of science, and we want to prepare school teachers to make the most of it."

Participants will learn to develop school curricula incorporating easily accessible data on weather abnormalities, sea-level rise and ocean temperature shifts being attributed El Niño. The information is being posted on the Web as soon as it is collected by satellites and thousands of buoys in the Pacific Ocean.

"In many cases, students can monitor shifts in temperatures, currents and sea level in real time - that is, as quickly as the information is being recorded and as quickly as scientists are analyzing it," said Phyllis Grifman, associate director of outreach programs for USC Sea Grant.

Organized like a scientific workshop, the online event will provide an opportunity to interact with renowned experts in marine biology, oceanography, climatology, sophisticated scientific instrumentation and coastal hazards.

"Kids have a natural enthusiasm for computers and the Internet, and if we can tap into that to teach science, then it makes our job that much easier," said Lynn Whitley, education program coordinator for USC Sea Grant.

As engaging as evolving events like El Niño can prove for students, they pose a particular challenge for school teachers, said Jeanine Cripe Mauch, a workshop discussion leader and veteran science educator with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"It's not like there's a textbook on El Niño, because the scientific community's understanding is still developing," Mauch said. "You can go to the Internet and pull together reliable information, but it's really time-consuming. There must be about 6,000 hits on El Niño, which most teachers don't have the time to wade through."

During each week of the month-long online workshop, a noted authority will give a keynote address on a specific aspect of El Niño, which is Spanish for "little boy" or "Christ child." (The name refers to the tendency of the phenomenon, first observed by South American fishermen, to arrive around Christmas time.)

Jorge Vazquez, a physical oceanographer with the ocean science division of Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will provide an overview of El Niño data available on the World Wide Web. Vazquez will offer a particular emphasis on JPL's satellite project that tracks rises in sea level due to the rise in ocean temperatures associated with El Niño and the resulting expansion of ocean waters.

John Kermond, a visiting scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Global Programs, will also discuss strategies for making sense of online climatic data, but his emphasis will be on NOAA's research. The agency is track-ing shifts in sea surface temperature through satellite imagery and a vast network of data buoys in the Pacific Ocean.

Don Chambers, a research engineer and scientist at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Space Research, will discuss how satellite technology works and how accurate it has to be to predict El Niño and other climatic events.

James O'Brien, director of the Center for Oceanic and Atmospheric Prediction at Florida State University, will discuss past occurrences of the climatic condition, which occurs every four years or so, as well as El Niño's reverse - the so-called "La Niña" or "El Viejo," which is characterized by unseasonably cooler ocean temperatures in the Pacific.

Teachers will be able to converse with keynote speakers through e-mail. They will also be able to break into seminar-like discussions with four other experts in coastal hazards during El Niño, the severity of storms and hurricanes spawned by El Niño and the effects of El Niño on marine mammals and fish.

Leading these chat sessions will be Ann Close, program manager of USC's Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies; Leslie Ewing, a coastal engineer for the California Coastal Commission; Mauch, a director of educational programs at the LAUSD's Center for Marine Studies at Fort MacArthur; and Sue Yoder, USC Sea Grant's marine advisory services leader.

Information from each session and keynote lecture will remain posted on the Website for the online workshop, allowing participants to join the event at any point.

The online workshop for educators is an offshoot of USC Sea Grant's El Niño Web page, which provides basic information on the phenomenon that has been blamed for flooding in the Western and Southern United States and fires and droughts in the west Pacific.

The El Niño Web page - http://www.usc.edu/go/seagrant - offers links to 16 Websites providing up-to-the-minute data on ocean surface temperatures, ocean surface levels and other primary scientific information from the National Oceanic Datacenter, Scripps Institute, NOAA, Florida State University and other leading institutions in El Niño research. The Website also provides survival strategies for residents of cliff-side and shoreline dwellings, which have proven to be at particular risk from the rise in sea level associated with El Niño.

The online workshop is being organized in cooperation with the University of Maryland's College of Exploration, a leader in distance learning. Teachers who participate in the workshop, which runs through March 31, may earn one unit of graduate-level university credit from the University of Maryland or Cal State Long Beach.

The cost for the computer password to the on-line workshop is $30. Receiving college credit costs an additional $75 from Cal State Long Beach or $150 from the University of Maryland. Registration material is available at USC Sea Grant's main El Niño Website.

Beginning April 1, the information from the online workshop will be posted and available free of charge on USC Sea Grant's main El Niño Website. In the meantime, links to all Websites being discussed in the on-line workshop maybe reached free of charge through the main El Niño Website.

USC Sea Grant, one of 29 programs in coastal and Great Lakes states funded by NOAA, specializes in programs aimed at the "urban ocean." In addition to sponsoring scientific research, USC Sea Grant also provides information about marine resources, recreation and education.