Seeing the world inside of class
How a satellite-tracking computer brings geography to life at Runnymede Collegiate
Teacher Allan McAdam, foreground, keeps students informed with a computer that picks up satellite transmissions.

Hunched over a computer Friday in the geography room at Runnymede Collegiate, Grade 9 student Jeff Mackay tapped impatiently at a curious little switch box beside the screen.

"Try getting the elevation up a bit," suggested classmate John Brownscombe.

"Maybe the wind is interfering," offered 14-year-old Asim Siddiqi.

Suddenly, the three students cheered with relief, as a striking live image of the shore ice of Hudson's Bay sprang into view from 850 kilometres above the earth.

It was the daily 2 p.m. feed from United States weather satellite NOAA 16 as it passed overhead — way overhead.

Through an unusual satellite dish perched on the roof of this Toronto high school, students can track weather satellites as they orbit the planet and send their images back down to earth, to the computer screen in Room 128.

That makes this unassuming main-floor classroom an actual working satellite ground station, which can pull down live images from a range of American weather satellites passing overhead.

To geography teacher Allan McAdam, one of the few educators in Canada with a satellite-tracking dish at school, this live technology delivers "real-time geography."

"New curriculum, old curriculum — when you're seeing Earth from space, it's real," said McAdam, who has won numerous awards for blending technology with teaching.

On Sept. 11, students were busy tracking an offshore hurricane when the terrorist attack sent plumes of smoke into the atmosphere.

Because the class had the dish turned out to sea, they saw only a faint edge of the cloud, but it proved live technology can be a powerful teaching tool.

"Certainly this makes learning much more exciting than just looking at maps," said Brownscombe, 14. "We went looking for the events of Sept. 11 and saw a lot of smoke.

"We've also seen the actual Oak Ridges Moraine by satellite that we learned about in class.

"And we can `catch' hurricanes. It's neat."

As Friday's gusts hammered the dish — paid for by McAdam 12 years ago with teaching prize money — Mackay struggled to keep it in position by adjusting the switches on the control box as the satellite hurtled into range.

"Look — AOS in 3:33!" exclaimed McAdam, which means three minutes and 33 seconds before the satellite gets close enough for the dish can pick up its signal (that's Acquisition of Signal or AOS).

At last the black-and-white satellite image unfurled slowly on the screen and a clear satellite snapshot of Northern Ontario appeared.

"See those lines? Those are cracks in the ice," said Siddiqi. "And the dark patch around the shore in that bay is open water. Water is always dark because it doesn't reflect sunlight back up to the satellite, but snow does, so it's always bright.

"We've learned a lot with this satellite about latitude and longitude and compass directions and what the Earth really looks like," he said.

At 2 p.m. on a February afternoon in the Arctic it was already dark, noted the student.

"Look — see how much darker it is on the north part of the screen? That's because it's so far north, you've got nearly 24 hours of darkness in winter."

After 15 minutes, NOAA 16 (National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration) had passed out of range and Mackay turned his attention to processing the pictures and adding them to the computer's library of satellite shots.

"I like the fact this is hands on, and not just notebook work," said Mackay. "We're actually seeing geography."

If you have an idea for Cool Schools, you can reach Louise Brown at 416-869-4306 or Kristin Rushowy at 416-869-4828, or by e-mail at or

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