How a Student-Explorer Team Took Environmental Action From Space

National Geographic Explorer Kim Young, who teaches high school world history, wrote this post.

During the summer of 2018, sitting in a small conference room outside Fairbanks, Alaska, I had the opportunity to listen to a team of climate scientists present data they had collected using satellite imagery to gain insight into forest fire patterns. As a medieval world history teacher, much of the conversation went over my head, but one thing stood out: imagery captured all the way from space was an untapped primary source I could be using with my students during geo-inquiry! I wondered how we as educators could better use satellite imagery, not only to help students investigate the world but also to take collective environmental action.

I further developed this idea through meeting and collaborating with other National Geographic Explorers. In 2018, I was paired with data scientist Dan Hammer as part of the Educator-Explorer Exchange, after earlier participating in the Exchange with Explorer Hannah Reyes Morales. Dan and I experimented with best practices around using satellite imagery in the classroom by having students map geographic features on Mount Everest. In 2019, I met environmental community organizer and National Geographic Explorer KM Reyes and we bonded over shared interests and professional goals. Collaborating with these Explorers helped germinate the idea for a citizen science pilot we called the Deforestation Challenge.

After several smaller experiments using satellite imagery in the classroom, throughout the 2021-22 school year, over 400 middle and high school students from the United States, the Philippines, and Singapore collaborated with National Geographic Explorers to collect deforestation data from satellite imagery of the Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat (CNCH) on Palawan Island in the Philippines.

CNCH was established in 2017 and is the largest legally established critical habitat in the Philippines (41,350 hectares). The area is the Indigenous home of the Batak people and 85 percent of Palawan’s endemic mammals and birds. As KM said previously on the Education Blog, “Palawan is a magical place. … It’s a real, veritable paradise.”

KM co-founded the Centre for Sustainability PH (CS), a women- and youth-led nonprofit organization in the Philippines that focuses on sustainable community development. CS has been critical to supporting this protected area and works collaboratively with Indigenous tribes in Palawan on community-led research and conservation.

In October 2021 KM and I launched the Deforestation Challenge, in which students from across the world helped meet CS’s need for data with the help of Dan Hammer. Dan is a data scientist who works to make satellite imagery of the Earth more accessible to journalists, educators, and students. He and his colleagues at Earthrise Media developed the Earthrise Education platform as a tool for students to look closely, annotate, and gather environmental data from satellite imagery. But wait, how do you identify deforestation… from space? The answer, it turns out, is by knowing what to look for in high-resolution satellite imagery.

With the help of Dan’s team, imagery of CNCH from 2013 (four years before the area was protected), 2018 (one year after protection), and 2020 (most recent available) were uploaded to the Earthrise Education platform. This tool allowed students to work collaboratively to collect deforestation data using point and polygon markers. As KM said, “It was exciting to have students engaged in something that’s far away from them yet really impacts all of us, with the biodiversity crisis that we face now.”

This unique way of collecting data allowed students from around the world to participate in the challenge from their own homes and classrooms.

Students began by zooming in on imagery from a given year and following rivers that flow through CNCH. With few roads into the protected area, rivers are the primary means of transporting humans and equipment to a site. As students followed the rivers, they looked for areas of concentrated brown color to contrast with the green color, as a means of identifying recent forest clearing. However, brown coloration alone is not enough to identify a deforestation site; sometimes the brown areas reflect landslides or river erosion. So students then looked for secondary identifiers like patchwork organization, straight edges, and clumps of brown areas. Students could also peer-review one another’s entries to double-check findings.

We began by recruiting challenge participants via an open call on social media. Participants from the “National Geographic Education – Explorer Mindset” Facebook group, Fulbright Teacher Exchange alumni, and Grosvenor Teacher Fellows all joined in. To ensure local students knew about the challenge, KM recruited a final National Geographic Explorer and educator, Henry Calilung, who coordinated student participation in the Philippines (including Palawan Island!) through video-conferencing.

In total, the 400-plus student participants from across the world collectively entered over 12,000 data points as part of the challenge. This data will help CS identify areas on which to focus their efforts. One high school student participant commented, “This project differed [from my typical schoolwork] mostly in being able to actually get involved. … At school, we might make a presentation about something, but it isn’t actually doing anything. When students mark deforested areas, they are collecting real data for real people. That can make a huge difference, and it helps us feel like we are actually helping a problem in this world.” Teachers whose students participated in the challenge felt similarly. One middle school teacher said of the experience, “Students and educators were able to work with others, as well as an Explorer, on a real-world problem and contribute to solutions.”

Data collected by students

Participating in the challenge reminded me of the importance of engaging students in authentic, action-based activities connected to classroom curriculum. Satellite imagery has the ability to inspire and empower the next generation of climate activists to take action both locally and globally; students do not need to wait until they are “grown up” to take environmental action; they have the agency to do so now.

Want to get your students involved in taking action using satellite imagery? Visit the Earthrise Education site to explore different investigations your students can participate in, or reach out to me directly to learn how to gain access to the tool. Right now we are recruiting students to help develop a Global Plastic Watch, as we need citizen scientists to help validate data. Please join in the effort!

For more information about future challenges, stay tuned to National Geographic Education, including through the Education Blog, our Twitter and Facebook accounts, and our website.

National Geographic Explorer Kim Young is a longtime social studies teacher at Weston High School, outside Boston, Massachusetts. She is a 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, 2019 National Geographic Grantee, and 2020 Education Fellow. Her current work focuses on interdisciplinary applications of action-based environmental curriculum through the K-12 grade spans.

Featured image shows Deforestation Challenge participants from Regent Secondary School in Singapore (Edwin Chew Tec Heng, lead teacher/geography, Regent Secondary School)

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