Environmental sensibilities grow from a remote seed

October 10, 1997

Bill Holdsworth visits a Dutch project that aims to train a teacher taskforce in new technology for the earth sciences

On televised weather forecasts we are able to watch clouds swirling white above an orange landscape and blue seas. These are not photographs but infrared images transmitted from space and computer processed to add colour - an example of remote sensing technology.

The Dutch Ministry of Education has decided to use remote sensing technology as a standard part of the curriculum for geography and earth sciences, beginning next year. Teachers and students have been able to use the technology hands-on since the opening of a unique project in April at the Noordwijk Space Expo Centre in Holland.

Set amid protective coastal sand dunes a remote sensing classroom, with 16 multimedia computers and space for 30 students, is helping to train an advanced task-force of remote sensing technology teachers.

Project manager, engineer Michel van Baal, has developed an innovative course programme with the help of the Dutch national Centre for School Improvement and technical input from the European Space Agency.

The self-funding project was kick-started with Pounds 100,000 of grant aid from the Dutch ministries of education, transport and water management and the European Space Agency.

Without being a whizz kid, in one afternoon I was able to decipher a collection of images from the American Landsat satellite, clicking my mouse for red, green and blue enhancement to distinguish urban and agricultural areas in the vicinity of Amsterdam. Water looks black while bright spots of white are greenhouses.

I tried out different positions for Schiphol airport's new runway and examined the effect on noise levels and land use. As an engineer who writes and lectures on the creation of well tempered and healthy environments I was excited at being able to understand and learn so much in a short space of time.

A specially developed computer program allows students to extract information from satellite data using basic image-manipulation techniques. Teachers and students use the program to assess environmental risks. They can study ozone depletion over the South Pole with information supplied from Europe's Earth Resources Satellite, which maps the atmosphere in 40 x 40 kilometre squares. Landsat with its sharper 30 x 30 metres ground resolution allows students to make flood control plans for the huge river systems that flow across Holland out of Europe into the North Sea. Last month, the centre welcomed 30 Dutch teachers from gymnasium schools, which prepare students for higher education. Michel van Baal's aim for 1998 is a more comprehensive programme for 400 Dutch educational establishments. A short introductory course will soon be on the Internet, and CD-Roms may be produced as the project grows.

The British and United States high schools in the Netherlands have asked for an English version of the remote sensing learning programme. Both Dutch and international publishers are starting to knock at van Baal's door. Commercial and industrial companies are taking notice. Among 55 municipal, industrial and commercial sponsors of this venture are three British companies: C.T. Bowring Space Projects, Matra Marconi and Serco Space.

Van Baal is adamant that space should be looked upon as an integral part of our cultural inheritance. "All teachers are welcome to this classroom," he said." With our ability to measure and record from space we are able to witness man's visible impacts on our planet. By learning to think and act for ourselves we become proactive in our ways of using knowledge. It means that teachers everywhere must also learn new languages of understanding and not to fear the use of new tools."

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