Starting this school year, Butternut School will serve as an atmospheric and environmental monitoring station, contributing a large amount of data for use by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as NASA scientists.
The school is the first northern Wisconsin point of data collection for a new UW project titled “Advanced Climate Science Education, Inquiry, and Literacy Across Rural Wisconsin Communities.” The project has already supplied the school with scientific measuring instruments that are calibrated to take readings on par other similar devices located at points soon to be across the state.
In addition to instrumentation, teachers at the school recently completed a three-day intensive training with a pair of UW scientists.
Rosalyn Pertzborn, director for Atmospheric, Earth, and Space Outreach Program (AESOP), and Dr. Michael Notaro, associate director at the Center for Climate Research, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, were on site for the Butternut training the week of Aug. 13.
During their visit, the two scientists introduced the basics of climate science and the environmental variables that can be measured in the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and soils.
“There’s a historical aspect to this for the community, and how climate is impacting the community,” said Pertzborn, who highlighted the school will also be plugged into a system of 125,000 schools worldwide, participating in a program over 20 years old.
That program is the Global Learning and Observations to benefit the Environment Program (GLOBE). Started in 1995 and sponsored by NASA, the program is used worldwide by teachers and students in the classroom, collecting local data and entering it into a massive database that can be accessed for free online. According to the GLOBE website, measurements submitted by trained schools around the world, such as Butternut, “are combined with readings at automated stations to create a worldwide resource for conducting scientific inquiry; some measurements serve as ground truth for NASA satellite data products (e.g., clouds, soil moisture).”
Readings on air temperature and precipitation change often, meaning students will be taking such measurements each day. Others, such as hydrological readings on water temperature and clarity, may only need to be done weekly, while others, such as sampling local plant life and tree cover, will be on an annual basis.
As these measurements are taken over time, local trends will begin to emerge, and may aid in future understanding and decision making when it comes to changes in the local environment, according to Notaro.
“Presumably, in the next several decades, a lot of these northern evergreens will potentially die. So, are we starting to see evidence of those changes happening? Things like that are important for your regional planners,” Notaro said.
The Butternut site will advance the scientific data gathered by the University by serving as, currently, the northernmost point on a transect of the state running from north to south. This line running from Madison up to Ashland County will intersect the Curtis Tension Zone — an ecological gradient of vegetation distribution, where Wisconsin’s northern evergreens meet its southern deciduous trees and plant life.
“We are trying to observe how climate variability and change might shift the location of that tension zone over time,” said Notaro.
Butternut Middle School science teacher Laurie Fox said the opportunity to be a part of the project is a huge opportunity for students in the classroom.
“We are always trying to let kids know there is a big world out there,” Fox said. “There are diverse people, there are multiple things you can do with science, with learning. It’s so nice to have the scientists here with the expertise they have ... come and talk to us as teachers directly about their research, about what they know”
Fox said being a part of the program will integrate with the current science curriculum already in place at Butternut.
“This isn’t just a one time thing and then it’s done,” said Fox. “We’re looking at how to implement the protocols into our existing curriculum, and we’re going to figure out how to add onto what we’re already doing to make it better. We’re excited to have the community involved.”
Some atmospheric tools will be used in outdoor stations at the school, and Fox hopes the sight of those stations bring questions from the community into the school.
“These opportunities are opening doors for Butternut for interacting with other places in the state and the world,” Notaro commented. “It’s building a bridge between the university scientists and the Butternut kids and teachers. It’s also building a bridge between students here and all around the world.”
The project is funded primarily through the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, a program which awards grants to qualified UW-Madison projects that engage the public and share knowledge and solutions generated by the University for the benefit of the state, nation, and world.
The project also received funding through the National Science Foundation, which will also make use of the Butternut data.
“This is really, I feel, a very authentic partnership,” said Pertzborn. “I’ve done this for 20 years, and these folks are a standout. This is really a model — context, school, staff — in which to implement this program. And hopefully maintain a long term relationship with this community. We have felt very welcome.”
Notaro echoed his colleague, commenting on how impressed he was with the school, and the dedication of each of the teachers to be there each day for training.
“Every teacher has been very engaged,” he said. “You should be very proud of what you’ve got here. We’re very glad we picked this site.”