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UW Professor Has Shared Satellite Images with Laramie Schools for Last Decade

June 13, 2019
man speaking to classroom of young teens
Satellite images acquired since the 1960s show how diverting water from two rivers -- the Amu Darya and Syr Darya -- resulted in the desiccation of the Aral Sea, which used to be the fourth-largest lake in the world. Ramesh Sivanpillai, a senior research scientist from WyGISC, provides the outreach lesson to sixth-grade social science students in Laramie Middle School during January. Sivanpillai has used satellite images to provide outreach lessons in Laramie schools for the past decade. (Michelle Petty Photo)

Years ago, Ramesh Sivanpillai had a feeling that satellite images taken from afar could help bring some closer perspective to lessons being taught to Laramie students in elementary and middle school.

It turns out he was on to something. Sivanpillai, a senior research scientist from the University of Wyoming’s Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center (WyGISC), has been visiting classrooms with his images -- depicting everything from crop fields to forests to lakes to cities to water diversion in the Aral Sea -- for a decade now.

This past year, he reached more than 550 students at Spring Creek and Indian Paintbrush elementary schools, Laramie Middle School and the UW Lab School. From 2010-19, he has presented satellite images to roughly 2,000 students as part of WyomingView’s educational outreach activity. WyomingView is part of AmericaView, a national program aimed to promote remote sensing science and applications.

“This is a great way for me to introduce satellite imaging,” he says of his educational outreach efforts. “We can now see how images taken from satellites are useful.”

But Sivanpillai wasn’t sure teachers saw his efforts as such. At least not at first.

“Some of the challenges for me is it’s very difficult to get into a class,” he says. “It helps when I know someone who has a kid in one of the classes. That teacher gives it a try.”

Some teachers already felt too busy, or expressed concern that Sivanpillai only wanted to build his resume and wouldn’t return consistently with lessons. Others found the satellite images interesting, but Sivanpillai learned his work did not always coincide with what the students were learning in class.

Then, he decided to ask teachers in advance what lessons they were teaching and offered to supplement that with relevant content using the satellite images.

“They cover topics in the textbook first. Then, I come in, and that has formed the partnership,” Sivanpillai says.

When he also proffered that such lessons would help the teachers meet Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), more teachers bought in. The standards were developed by a consortium of 26 states, National Science Teachers Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council. Wyoming didn’t adopt the NGSS, but enacted standards largely modeled after the NGSS.

“Then, they say ‘Now, we’re ready to talk,’” Sivanpillai says of teachers he approached.

Images Shared Through the Years

In 2010, Sivanpillai first presented in Ron Whitman’s physical science class at then Laramie Junior High School (now Laramie Middle School). Students were introduced to remote sensing science and technology; learned how images are acquired in the visible and infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum; and learned how the images are used in forestry (wildfires), agriculture (crop growth), range science (invasive species) and hydrology (lake levels).

man speaking to classroom of children
Ramesh Sivanpillai explains remotely sensed images that show how water is stored in mountains and lakes during an education outreach presentation he made to second-grade students at Indian Paintbrush Elementary School. By viewing images of clean, polluted and degraded water bodies, students learned the importance of protecting this valuable natural resource during this May lesson. (Julie Howard Photo)

“The presentation was very helpful in the students’ understanding of the practical applications of using electromagnetic waves in remote sensing,” Whitman says. “Students tend to think that only pictures using visible light can be useful in these observations of objects … use of infrared and ultraviolet waves are quite beneficial.”

Another lesson Sivanpillai recalls is talking with second-graders at Indian Paintbrush Elementary School about water conservation in 2015. At that time, California was suffering from a drought.

“We began to talk about what it would be like to be without water,” he recalls. “Where do we get most of our leafy vegetables? California. The students began to see the connections. We now see how images taken from satellites are useful.”

As part of the lesson, Sivanpillai showed the students satellite images of the Aral Sea, starting in 1964 and going forward. The Aral Sea, located in central Asia, lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Once the fourth-largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has been shrinking since the 1960s after the two rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects to grow crops. Eventually, the sea became a desert.

In Kazakhstan, efforts in recent years to build a dam have replenished water levels, to some degree, in the Aral Sea, and the fish have returned, Sivanpillai says.

“Kids I talked to in the second grade are now in third or fourth grade. When I come back and students see me in the hall, they ask how that sea is doing,” he says.

Other lessons he has offered over the years involve using a spectrometer to learn about why leaves are certain colors (eighth grade) and, this year, using LIDAR to examine more closely the remnants of Aztec, Inca and Mayan cultures.

Sivanpillai says it is gratifying to him to see the excitement in students who want to learn more.

“They are so eager and excited. As a teacher, you get that sense of satisfaction,” he says. “They are making these connections.

“Sometimes, they ask the most difficult questions. It makes you think,” he continues. “They help me review some of the techniques I use in my UW classes. I can see concepts I can explain better or in a different way.”

Sivanpillai hopes to eventually broaden his outreach lessons beyond just Laramie. He recently took part in a weeklong Learning Actively Mentoring Program or LAMP “boot camp” in Sheridan. Under LAMP, UW faculty and students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields visit schools around the state and offer lessons related to STEM education.

“I will probably learn some of the techniques and start using them in classes I’ve been to before,” he says. “For me, I don’t have support sources outside of Laramie. They (LAMP) will get in touch with different schools to get more resources.”

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