Building Climate Literacy for Informal Educators: Expanding the Earth to Sky Partnership (EPOESS NNH09CF00C)



Earth to Sky (ETS) is an ongoing and expanding interagency partnership between NASA, the National Park Service (NPS) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), that enables and encourages informal educators to access and use relevant NASA science, data, and educational and outreach products in their work. The partnership is built upon the strengths unique to each of the agencies, and leverages these strengths to provide resources and services that none of the agencies can provide on its own. While NASA contributes science and educational products, USFWS and NPS each contribute expertise in training and informal education as well as training facilities and infrastructure. The partnership has been solely grant–funded by NASA, and receives funds from no other sources. NPS and USFWS provide in-kind contributions of staff time, facilities and infrastructure that support course development and execution.

The partnership focuses on developing and producing professional development for informal educators, most recently focusing on climate change science that is communicated to the varied audiences served by the USFWS and NPS. Using evidence-based approaches, the partners co-develop and deliver courses that are becoming a part of the training program for both USFWS and NPS; provide additional professional development via webinars; and deliver short courses at professional conferences. During the course, participants use the science and educational content to develop action plans for creating and delivering informal and formal education products and programs for the public, students and other educators. These plans are implemented at participants’ workplace (Parks, Refuges, Hatcheries, etc.) typically within one year of the course.

Pairing real world experiences of climate effects on public lands with NASA’s unique planetary perspective provides opportunities to link global, regional and local effects in the minds and hearts of the public. The perspective afforded by such linkages can create powerful and long lasting impressions, provoke further learning about this topic, and enrich the experiences of millions of visitors to America’s public lands while providing accurate, accessible, and timely information on accelerated global climate change. The partnership also maintains a website that houses much of the course content, provides science and other updates for the community, and showcases selected alumni efforts. The ETS listserv of over 450 members is used to provide regular science content and updates on further opportunities for professional development. Both the website and listserv help to nurture and sustain this growing community of practice centered on STEM education in our public lands.

Earth to Sky has received positive attention and support at the highest level within participating agencies, including NPS Director Jon Jarvis, USFWS Science Advisor Gaby Chavarria, and past NASA Chief Scientist Waleed Abdalati. ETS is poised for expansion to include more NASA science and a broader audience. ETS Coordinators have been approached by staff from US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, state parks, zoos, museums, aquariums, and botanical gardens asking to participate in courses and for additional resources for them. With a very small amount of remaining grant funds, ETS is undertaking a long-range planning process this year, to explore how the partnership can develop the capacity to expand our audience and possibly increase the scope of content while maintaining our level of excellence.

Using Evidence-Based Approaches:

Earth to Sky (ETS) professional development events (face to face and distance learning events) use a proven methodology that ensures adoption and use of content delivered in its courses. The method is termed the Authentic Task Approach. In addition, we follow the US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) Service National Conservation Training Center's application of Instructional Systems Design, and employ proven methods in communication training provided by our National Park Service (NPS) partners. Beyond relying on the published evidence for these professional development methodologies, our evaluation efforts clearly show that ETS courses result in improved understanding of the presented science. Moreover, in all ETS courses, participants are required to create an action plan for using the science and educational content in their work. Evaluators have tracked participants and shown that most of the plans have been implemented within about one year of the course.

Earth to Sky participants are professional educators who in turn employ evidence based approaches to informal and formal education. To conduct education in STEM, ETS participants use a highly regarded methodology steeped in education research and theory, called interpretation. The specific methods used by NPS and USFWS are taught by them through a rigorous set of courses. NPS employs an assessment process for competency in a variety of interpretation skills (ex., public programs, media, writing) and at different levels; rubrics are in place to ensure consistency in awarding competency in each of these. USFWS, US Forest Service, the National Association for Interpretation, and national parks in other countries turn to NPS as the leader in this field of communication. Rangers are highly regarded for their effective communication with the public via in person programming, as well as brochures, exhibits, web sites, and increasingly, social media.

Earth to Sky participants also frequently work with formal educators (teachers in K-12) to develop curriculum-based programming that conveys STEM content. It is well known that pairing classroom learning with field trips to conserved sites results in effective learning and is inspirational for students. Many of the curriculum-based efforts involve a pre-visit, site visit and post-visit sequence, commonly known to be an effective model of education. ETS participants who work in the field of environmental education ascribe to the tenets of the North American Association for Environmental Education's guidelines for excellence.

Sharing Best Practices:

Earth to Sky has identified its professional development methodology, partnership building and community of practice efforts as best practices. Evaluation of the program clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of the approach. We have shared these results and this methodology with NASA’s EPO community at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the NASA Earth Science Education Retreat; National Association for Interpretation's annual conferences; Astronomical Society of the Pacific conferences; American Geophysicists Union conference; National Science Teachers Association; National Park Service Superintendent's meetings; George Wright Society meeting (natural resource managers of NPS USFWS, etc.); and the tri-agency (NSF-NOAA-NASA) Climate Change Education Principal Investigators meetings.


A longitudinal evaluation effort has demonstrated the degree to which NASA content is used effectively in informal education settings in parks and refuges, and the extent to which a community of practice has been established.

To date, participants in ETS courses have reached well over 4 million visitors to National Parks and Wildlife Refuges with content derived from ETS efforts. Participants have created brochures; Jr. Ranger booklets and programs; teacher training; curriculum-based programming; indoor, outdoor and traveling exhibits; podcasts; websites; news articles; internal newsletters; peer training; and many on-site ranger programs of varying lengths. As a direct result of participation in ETS, one of the NASA scientists developed a 3-minute video on carbon cycle and climate change, now being used by course participants. Since its inception in 2004, Earth to Sky has hosted approximately 75 NASA scientists who have together presented over 100 sessions to a total of 135 participants in week-long face to face workshops plus an additional 35 in one and two day mini workshops at professional conferences. Additionally ETS trained over 535 educators through both distance learning and sessions at conferences, in a variety of subjects, including climate science, best practices in science communication, as well as sharing the ETS training model so others can replicate similar efforts.

Evaluation efforts focused on following 85 participants from a total of three courses. These professional educators have in turn reached over 4 million National Park and Wildlife Refuge visitors with content derived from Earth to Sky Face-to-Face professional development events and provided training to over 2,000 other educators. Through the use of approved visitor surveys, evaluation also examined the effectiveness of the efforts of some participants in several park and refuge sites and concluded that the quality of the work was quite high. We are certain that the 4 million reached is an underestimate – because of funding limitations not all participants have been followed, nor are all end products tracked by participants (for instance the number of podcast downloads is not tracked by NPS).

The course has the potential to become a fully embedded component of training for FWS and NPS staff. The NPS Training Division has identified the ETS week-long course as a component in a “course of study” about climate change, which includes a NPS course that focuses on communication technique with respect to climate change.




NASA Internal Partners

UC Berkeley Center for Science Education (Co-PI on all Earth to Sky efforts since inception in 2004). Staff is member of NASA Heliophysics forum and brings content from that science to the partnership, plus expertise in pedagogy and in professional development. This expertise helps ensure our courses are effective and strengthens the course content. It also has built bridges between the Earth and Heliophysics Forums, helping each to extend their reach beyond their typical audiences. NASA Earth Science EPO community - agency wide - Education and outreach staff (EPO) from a variety of NASA Earth missions suggest science presenters for our courses to cover specific content, create and provide educational products which are taught to the participants, and assist the ETS community in locating speakers, science content, educational materials, NASA visuals, etc. For example, Global Precipitation Mission developed a mechanism for issuing small amounts of funding to assist ETS members in fabricating final products that use content from this mission. Landsat EPO staff developed and presented content to enable participants to access and use Landsat data in their work. Staff from a variety of missions presented content in all ETS courses.

External Partners

External Partner provide all of their efforts as in-kind contribution to the partnership.

  • US Fish and Wildlife Service National Conservation Training Center (co-lead on partnership) brings highly regarded and proven effective professional development methodology, proven effective environmental education methodology, residential facility for week-long courses, assists in presenting course content, provides logistical support for the course.
  • National Park Service Mather Training Center brings highly regarded and proven effective professional development methodology, proven effective informal education methodology and techniques for training this methodology, a facility for week-long courses, assists in presenting course content, provides logistical support for the course.
  • National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service Field Staff A select group of alumni, who are experienced educators involved in NPS and USFWS training efforts, provide guidance for ETS course developers regarding course content relevance and usefulness and the course agendas; they also coach scientist presenters to ensure sessions are appropriate for the audience, and coach participants during the course as they develop their action plans. Each of these partners brings unique contributions. All are essential for the functions of the partnership. The partnership extends NASA reach to informal educators nationwide who are otherwise unaware of the rich content the agency provides. in turn, these educators share this information with the public, students and other educators. Partners have also introduced to members of the NASA EPO and science communities the methodology of interpretation.




Additional Metrics:

See also next section on Effectiveness and Impacts



Effectiveness and Impact

Evaluation findings and impact statements:

The external evaluator is Dr. Theresa Coble, Stephen F. Austin University. Though our partnership focuses on professional development, our evaluation effort extended to an attempt to understand if our participants were using course content to effectively reach their intended audience, the visiting public and virtual visitors to parks and refuges. See attached document that summarizes all of our evaluation efforts since 2004.

Our evaluation efforts clearly show the creation and use of many STEM products and programs that would never have been developed without the ETS courses. For example, the lead for Bureau of Land Management education wrote a draft agency-wide plan for interpreting climate change as a direct outcome of our course; ETS participants developed the NPS’ on line WebRanger activities about climate change (reaching over 19,000 children); alumni have developed a series of NPS podcasts on climate change; the NPS brochure on climate change (over 400,000 distributed); a traveling exhibit; USFWS wayside exhibits; many teacher workshops; internal newsletter articles; and much more.

In addition to the impact of increasing science knowledge and use by our participants in their educational work, we have impacts not directly measured by our evaluator. One of the greatest impacts we have is that our course has matured through the active partnering we do with NPS and USFWS. As a result, we see that we are meeting needs of our partners and the course is becoming embedded in the suite of training opportunities presented to informal educators and environmental educators in NPS and USFWS. Additionally, other agencies are interested in becoming involved. Another impact is the establishment and maintenance of a community of practice, which is sharing information within our listserv, and which we draw upon for assistance in developing and presenting course content both in week-long and one and two day events at professional conferences.

Earth to sky has presented NASA STEM content at the National Association for Interpretation annual conference each year since 2005. This conference annually draws up to 2000 informal educators from across the nation. In that time we have seen attendance at our presentations on climate science grow from about 30 for a one hour session to over 100, and we have been approved for one and two day workshops on a regular basis. As far as we know we are the only group that has brought scientists into this conference to provide STEM content, and we are definitely the only ones to bring NASA climate scientists. Additionally the partnership has been the sole NASA representation for an education booth at these conferences. This extends NASA STEM content to a significant audience of informal educators that would otherwise not be reached. Many times over in comments from participants we hear how effective the course are and how much they value the time spent with NASA scientists and EPO specialists.