NOAA releases Geodesy Discovery Kit online.

The geodesy kit illustrates the modeling of the earth with these four figures. The simplest model of the Earth is a sphere. The most complex model of the Earth is the geoid, used to approximate mean sea level. Even the geoid is a simplified model, however, when compared to actual topographic relief, as shown in this image of the Grand Canyon. Illustration compliments of NOAA.
How many high schoolers know what geodesy is? For that matter, how many adults can define this term?

The answers to these questions are "few." But, a new online educational tool from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been released with the intent to better educate our nation, and especially our high school science students, on the subject of geodesy. The tool is the Geodesy Discovery Kit, available at, which features a tutorial on geodesy, a roadmap to resources and lesson plans for teaching geodesy.

Like any good student, NOAA did its homework before creating the kit. Bruce Moravchik, a communications specialist with NOAA, is the educational program manager for the agency's National Ocean Service (NOS) communications and education division. The NOS is one of six major departments that comprise NOAA, and it is responsible for overseeing oceans, coasts, and charting and navigation. According to Moravchik, when the NOS organized its new education division, those placed in the group sought direction from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the National Marine Educators Association (NMEA). "We spoke to them and asked where the current gaps were in marine science education," Moravchik said. "Something they all told us was that there were large gaps at the high school level, both for students and for teachers."

The NOS educational specialists initiated an effort to start filling these gaps. They decided to utilize their resources to create educational material for high school teachers and students. The team knew they had phenomenal science resources, and luckily, they also had a lot of experience building big websites. This background resulted in the development of online discovery kits. The kits are designed to explain the applied science programs of NOAA's National Ocean Service. NOAA first released a kit on tides, then corals-and now, with the support of the National Geodetic Survey (NGS), the agency has released a kit on geodesy.

High School Style

Those working on the Geodesy Discovery Kit knew they had to provide more accessible information about the complex science if they wanted it to appeal to high schoolers. Moravchik said, "The NGS [already had] an online PDF about geodesy for the layman, but around the fourth or fifth page they start throwing in differential equations." The education division's No. 1 goal was to provide basic science information written in an engaging style.

An instrumental person in the process of developing the Geodesy Discovery Kit was Nikki Case. A graduate student in English, Case had no knowledge of geodesy before coming to work for NOAA. And according to NGS Director Charlie Challstrom, that was a very good thing. "Nikki is an energetic writer and editor," Challstrom said, "and she's been real valuable for testing us to be able to explain what we do."

With the help of Nikki and others, and following an intensive review process, the Geodesy Discovery Kit was written in a style that high schoolers can understand. For example, the introductory paragraph on the welcome page of the geodesy tutorial reads:

"Geodesy is the science of measuring and monitoring the size and shape of the Earth and the location of points on its surface. NOAA's National Geodetic Survey (NGS) is responsible for the development and maintenance of a national geodetic data system that is used for navigation, communication systems, and mapping and charting."

It's clear, concise prose-and it's just what students and teachers need.

The Geodesy Discovery Kit's section on GPS shows students that four satellites must be used to correct for the GPS receiver's clock error and find a precise position on the Earth. Illustration compliments of NOAA.

Science Education's Swiss Army Knife

There are three basic components to each of NOAA's kits: the tutorial, the roadmap and the lesson plans. "We tried to create products that can be used independently"¦ [We knew] we shouldn't create something huge that dictates how a teacher uses it," Moravchik said. Not only does every teacher have a different classroom, but others who access the website will have slightly different needs as well. Although the website is geared toward high school teachers and students, the Geodesy Kit's information can be modified for middle school or collegiate levels. And people who are just plain curious about geodesy can click around and find the information they want. "It's a science education Swiss army knife. It's not the perfect tool, but every backpacker's got one, and it does a little bit of everything," Moravchik said.

For those seeking an introduction to the field of geodesy, the tutorial provides a foundational overview. Moravchik calls it a "user-friendly primer on primary concepts within geodesy, so [people] can read, understand and appreciate the significance of what the [NGS] does." Then there's the roadmap, a listing of online resources that users can access for more information. "[Maybe] you're a college student interested in researching for a paper-you don't care about lesson plans. Go to the roadmap," Moravchik explained.

Of course, NOAA is hoping that a lot of teachers will care about the lesson plans. "I look at that material and find that it's extremely well thought-out and should inspire teachers if they have the chance to incorporate it," Challstrom said. The lesson plans are available as PDFs, and each includes a fill-in-the-blank review sheet and crossword puzzle. The lesson plans form part of the bridge that links the science of geodesy to its practical applications. For example, the second lesson plan requires students to access GPS data from Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS) and submit it to the Online Positioning User Service (OPUS) to calculate the amount of movement of a tectonic plate over a period of time.

NGS-Approved and Ready for the Classroom

There's no need to worry about the accuracy of the material the students are reading. Through an intensive review process, the NGS has put its stamp of approval on the Geodesy Discovery Kit. Challstrom calls the kit "the product of a great effort by some real dedicated employees."

Of course, the kit is not a definitive text on geodesy. Dave Zilkoski, the deputy director of the NGS, notes that highly technical people might be bothered by a few things in the kit, but he says that for "dealing with [grades] K-12, it's good and it's correct." Zilkoski, who has worked for the NGS for 30 years, is excited because he feels that the kit is a great way to combat geodesy's "identity crisis." He said, "Today these kids can be in high school or even in middle school walking around with some kind of a GPS device, so it's important to get [the Geodesy Discovery Kit] into schools now"¦ because they'll be able to associate it with something in the real world."

Moravchik said that NOAA has continued working with the NSTA and NMEA to promote the discovery kits at teacher conferences. By the end of this month, CD-ROM versions of the kits should be available to those who do not have good Internet access. "Because [NOAA is] a federal organization, everything we have posted is public domain," Moravchik explained. "So I encourage people to use it in any way they see fit."

Challstrom adds that the NGS welcomes suggestions from surveying professionals on how to use the material from the Geodesy Discovery Kit. "We know [surveyors are] our long-standing and very supportive constituency, and we would like to meet the needs of the surveyors in the country," Challstrom said. It certainly seems that they're already working hard to do just that by introducing the workforce of the future to geodesy.