Resource Type
Completion Time
About a week
Middle School and Up
Download, Share, and Remix
Related Members
Computers with internet access
Student Guided Handout (Separate Attachment)
Earth System, Structure, and Processes
Climate Change
Systems and Technologies
Polar Science


NASA’s Operation IceBridge, the largest airborne survey of Earth’s polar ice, uses remote sensing techniques like LiDAR (light detection and ranging), snow- and ice-penetrating radar, high resolution digital imaging, and infrared cameras to collect information on our changing ice sheets and sea ice. Several times each year a science team and flight crew head out on month-long campaigns in the Arctic and Antarctica collecting a massive amount of data that will be processed and stored for scientific and public use at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Through this lesson, students will learn how to access data from a science flight and create a position-elevation map on Google’s MyMaps App for a single flight line segment, essentially ‘zooming in’ on one piece of the growing data set from NSIDC. Along with working with raw geosciences data sets, students will gain insight on the scope of data collected and the value of airborne science in polar ice studies. Students will need access to computers with internet connectivity to proceed.


  1. Students will be able to construct and interpret a sample data plot using elevation, latitude, and longitude from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
  2. Students will identify the role of airborne science in polar regions and explain why consistent flight paths are needed to maximize the information available to scientists.
  3. Students will be able to infer the value of airborne science missions in studying polar ice after viewing the amount of data collected in one location.

Lesson Preparation

In order to access the data required for this lesson, visit the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Operation IceBridge portal at In the upper left of the screen, find and click on the “Quick Start” tab. Watch the introductory videos and familiarize yourself with the NSIDC portal before moving through the attached lesson.

Most of this lesson can be completed without an account, but in order to download files for map construction, you will need to create an Earthdata profile by clicking the Earthdata Login button in the upper right of the screen. Follow the prompts and complete the e-mail confirmations as requested. You may choose to have all students create his or her own login, or provide them with the login information you use as a shared class account.

If you do not wish to create a login, or if you have slow connectivity when attempting to download files, you can access some sample data sets in this shared Google file:…
In that folder, files appear as Google Documents. You will need to download them to your computer and open them with Excel to proceed with the lesson.


  1. Begin by introducing students to NASA’s Operation IceBridge. Discuss the role of airborne science as a valuable piece in the data collection toolbox and engage students in discussion about the connection between local ground measurements, airborne data collection, and satellite imagery in learning about our changing planet (The overview and introduction in the student guide offers some information to begin that discussion).
  2. Allow students to view either video or photos of a recent NASA Operation Icebridge campaign and explain that they are about to capture a segment of data from a single science flight and map it using Google’s MyMaps app. Encourage students to consider why it is important to have data on ice and snow thickness, temperature changes, and sea ice extent in addition to the photo and video images they first viewed.
  3. Explain that students will be working with a segment of data that acts almost like a fossil: a record or snapshot of a region of the earth at one instant in time. While science flights follow the same paths year after year, because of the nature of glacial motion on land and sea, variations will be evident in a single flight segment year after year (NOTE: This lesson focuses on constructing a plot from a flight segment for ONE year. See the Extension for options to compare segments year to year).
  4. Students should work through the guided exercises in teams of 2-3. Students will first learn how to navigate the NSIDC site. If you are using the Google Drive shared link, be sure to provide the link to students. Otherwise, set aside time to set students up with Earthdata login information or provide them with a single shared class login.
  5. Students should work at their own pace moving through each exercise in the lesson. Students can work outside of the classroom to meet deadlines if in-class time is limited. Timing for students may depend on prior experience with Excel or spreadsheets and familiarity with Google apps like MyMaps.
  6. Students should create a document in Microsoft Word or Google Docs to respond to discussion questions and to paste requested screen-shots of maps. All required information is included in the attached student guide. Responses may vary.


Students should use the skills acquired in this lesson to design and carry out a procedure to create a time series comparison of a particular flight path. This option is described in more detail in Part 4 of the guided student handout.


All data and maps can be accessed at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at

Pre-ordered data sets (which do not require an Earthdata login) can be accessed at . Make sure to download files to a desktop first in order to open in Excel (they should download automatically as xml files).

Students can interact with science team members and view real time flight paths via satellite technology through a tool called Mission Tools Suite for Education (MTSE).

The instructions for reducing the size of the data set in Excel was adapted from the instructions on TechRepublic found at…


The assessment includes the final map products and discussion question responses which are located in Part 3 of the guided student handout (instructions on pg. 17). Students should create either a Microsoft word document or new Google Doc to compile all information to be submitted.


Kelly McCarthy, 2016 PolarTREC Teacher
Kxm5002 [at]

Additional help and inspiration from Google Education Outreach Team; John Bailey, Google Geo-Education Outreach Project Manager; Fellow PolarTREC Teacher Maggie Kane

Standards Other

Common Core State Standards


MP.1 Make sense of problems and persevere while solving them
MP.2 Reason abstractly and quantitatively
MP.4 Model with mathematics
MP.5 Use appropriate tools strategically
HSN.Q.1 Use units as a way to understand problems and to guide the solution of multi-step problems; choose and interpret units consistently in formulas; choose and interpret the scale and the origin in graphs and data displays.
HSN.Q.2 Define appropriate quantities for the purpose of descriptive modeling.
HSN.Q.A.3 Choose a level of accuracy appropriate to limitations on measurement when reporting quantities.
8.SP.A.1 Construct and interpret scatterplots for bivariate measurement data to investigate patterns of association between two quantities. Describe patterns such as clustering, outliers, positive or negative association, linear association, and nonlinear association.


WHST.6-8.1 Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.
WHST.6-8.1.a Introduce claim(s) about a topic or issue, acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.
WHST.6-8.1.b Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate data and evidence that demonstrate an understanding of the topic or text, using credible sources.
WHST.6-8.1.c Use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
W.9-10.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
WHST.9-10.2 Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.
RST.11-12.2 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

MS-ESS2-2. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geosciences processes have changed Earth’s surface at varying time and special scales.
HS-ESS3-5 Analyze geosciences data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.

Classroom Connections (NGSS)

This lesson addresses the cross-cutting concepts of scale, proportion and quantity associated with MS-ESS2-2 when students are asked to examine the relative size of the segment of a flight line they mapped compared to the size of the Greenland Ice Sheet. They are asked to think deeper about how scientists can use a variety of scales and models to study polar ice. The specific Disciplinary Core Idea addressed in this lesson associated with both MS-ESS2-2 and HS-ESS3-5 is DCI ESS2.A: The planet’s systems interact over scales that range from microscopic to global in size, and they operate over fractions of a second to billions of years. The interactions have shaped Earth’s history and will determine its future. The lesson also addresses the Crosscutting Concepts of Cause and Effect, Structure and Function, Stability and Change, and Interdependence of Science, Engineering, and Technology.