Why the Sky?Look Up! The Sky is Yours
BY PROFESSOR OWEN E. THOMPSON
From time to time, I think about children, education , and the future. As a professional meteorologist, it strikes me that the atmosphere can be a unifying element in the advance toward adulthood. In a related news article in this paper you may read about a concerted effort by some important “friends of the sky” to effect improvements in our nation's pre-college science, math and technology education system. It may be worth a few added words here to share our vision with you.
In choosing the atmosphere as a base for learning, we are first of all embracing the awesome sky. The sky is a stimulus for creative thought and inquiry. It is a natural laboratory open to every student and teacher, regardless of age, location, or economic status. All of us are bottom dwellers in this laboratory- creatures in this sea of air. The atmosphere begins at our feet, and engulfs us. It yields a legacy of history, religious, literature, art, music, mystery, romance, feats of daring, political strife. It also yields a rich legacy for unified science, mathematics and technology education from the elementary level to the post graduate level. It is ageless. A child may use it. A professor of meteorology may use it. It is endlessly durable and in constant refurbishment. It will be there for next year’s children. In making the sky a window for education, we call into play for each student the first act of disciplined scientific inquiry: observation.
Our first involuntary act as human beings is to sense the sky with our lungs. We continue breathing it 16 times per minute, until the end. Through our eyes, we observe it. With simple instruments, such as thermometers or anemometers, we may move our pupils from observation to measurement, meeting concepts of precision and accuracy along the way. From measurements we may move to analysis, to pattern, to structure in time and space. From structure we may pass to hypothesis, to theory. The ways of knowing may be provoked in a child's contemplation of the sky.
The atmosphere serves as a vehicle to study the basic concepts common to all branches of science. It takes from, and gives to mathematics, physics and chemistry. It embodies examples of equilibrium and non-equilibrium, of stability and instability. Of order and of chaos. It has certainty, improbability, and mystery.. It may be studied qualitatively, or in the most elegant quantitative fashion. It submits to simple or complex measurement, to simple or complex analysis, to simple or complex theory. It incorporates the elegant fundamental principles of every science. It embraces the practical skills and tools of engineering, biology, geography, map analysis, computer science, the social sciences. It calls forth curiosity of all varieties. It stimulates inquiry at a mere glance. It appeals to the “natural wonder” of both child and teacher. Simple theories of why the winds blow, for example, are easy to present. These theories can evolve in complexity as the school child evolves in educational sophistication.
A teacher's information base for the study of the sky is enormous, easily accessible, adaptable to all levels of teaching and learning, and free of significant cost. The release of a small helium balloon can reveal the wind to a kindergarten child. The daily newspaper will yield depictions of the winds over a state, region, or the entire nation. The television broadcast meteorologist can show your child patterns in the wind, and can relate them to storminess and instability, or to centers of stable quiescence. The photographers of planets can give our pupil an awesome, global view of the natural scientific drama in which his single balloon performs. Art galleries and museums, magazines and music, can add life to the subject.
Our school child turned on to the sky can surround himself with atmospheric information, observations and measurements of all varieties and kinds, of all levels of complexity in graphical, visual or numerical form, through newspapers, television, radio, NOAA weather radio, the National Weather Service, even the home computer. Information delivery systems of the very highest technology lie awaiting the creative teacher who will use them. The atmosphere encompasses all sizes and time scales. A child can discover science in a single raindrop in his hand, or behold them in a rainbow, or wonder of them in the clouds, or watch them from space, encircling the globe as weather.
The sky adapts to a teacher's ever uncertain schedule. It performs its experiments in as little as an instant with its lightning stroke, in minutes with its ever changing clouds, in hours with its thunderstorms, in days with its hurricanes, cyclones and evolving weather patterns, in weeks with its seasonal march. It willingly adapts to the time available for contemplation.
An appreciation of the coherence of its seemingly chaotic and disjointed parts carries with it a message about life itself.
The atmosphere can provide our children with a holistic educational experience. A window on science and on humanistic endeavor. A teacher can treat the sunset as an experiment in the optical scattering of light, or as contemplative preparation for a painting. If as a painting, the choosing of the colors can be used to private scientific inquiry as to how the sky itself chooses them. The sky embraces art and science and helps to provide a bridge between them. Perhaps Longfellow was struggling with the science and technology of measurement when he asked:
"Who has seen the wind
''Neither I nor you
"But when the trees bow down their limbs,
"The wind is passing through"
With its sights and sounds, the sky pleases us. It sometimes frightens us. It calls upon us to make our peace with it, and to understand it. It challenges us to understand its parts, and then to understand the interaction of those constituent parts. The atmosphere has been nurtured and abused. Acid rain and "nuclear winter" challenges each of us to consider the influence of science on society. The atmosphere serves as a unifying element around which almost every intellectual discipline has its views. The familiar and beautiful rainbow, as an example, has spawned a marvelously diverse set of views through the windows of mythology, religion, art, and commerce as well as the windows of physics, mathematics and meteorology.
The atmosphere challenges us to integrative thinking. To a holistic approach to giving our children an education in the reality of science and life. It tears us away from the insulating forces of compartmentalization of scientific knowledge and flings us headlong into a communion with nature and society. Through the study of the atmosphere -the phenomenology, the methodology, the analysis, the synthesis, the relationships, the implications, the beauty - our nation's children can begin to obtain the discipline to understand and address discord and chaos where harmony may be found. Through this atmospheric window, we can ignite the boundless curiosity of a child, excite him to the pursuit of knowledge, and of understanding, and again promote the educational strength and scientific literacy for which the United States has been pioneer and leader.
If we are afraid to explore the darkness, we shall never discover the stars.