The small lab at New York University where Denis Voytenko works has large windows that face a busy Greenwich Village intersection. They are open invitations to anyone who happens to be cruising by: Hold up a second. Watch this guy spin liquid around in circles.
On this afternoon in early March (2016), ten high school students from Bard High School in Queens have been invited inside NYU’s Environmental Fluid Dynamics Lab as part of World Science Academy, a new education program from the World Science Foundation that offers high school students and teachers in New York City the opportunity to visit with dozens of leading scientists inside their labs.
Voytenko is a postdoctoral fellow at NYU’s Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science, a research program where mathematicians like Voytenko’s adviser, David Holland, use math to study climate change. Voytenko keeps a close eye on how fast ice is melting on one particular glacier in Greenland. The lab is full of video cameras and other high tech machines.
As the students settle in for their second lab tour of the day, Denise Holland, a field and logistics coordinator, welcomes them to the lab. Voytenko loads an image of Earth on a large monitor.
“What shape is the Earth?” he asks.
“Egg-shaped,” answers one student.
“Pear-shaped” says another.
The guesses keep coming: “Round.” “A sphere.” Then, with some time to think, one last guess from a student in the back: “It’s always changing.”
To answer that question, Voytenko invites the group to gather around a tall metal box mounted to a motor. Imagine a crate without the sides. A thin transparent rectangle full of red liquid sits directly in the center. Video cameras are mounted high and low. There’s even a Halloween decoration hanging above the box. Students have the experiment surrounded. With the flip of a switch, the contraption begins to spin, simulating the Earth’s rotation. As the box picks up speed, students watch as the liquid dips in the middle and collects at the edges.
“The Earth is almost a sphere, but just not,” Voytenko tells his attentive audience. It’s slightly flatter at the equator as a result of its orbit.
The conversation turns to Voytenko’s summer plans. He is going to Greenland to resume his field work. A student named Zoe asks him “Why Greenland?”
Voytenko tells her about the ice sheet that covers Greenland. As the planet warms, there are lots of changes going on there, he says. He’s watched icebergs the size of the island of Manhattan break off of glaciers, a process known as calving. Greenland is also a good testing ground for more difficult research trips to Antarctica.
The tour of cool science gadgets wraps up in a windowless room down the hall. It’s full of the boxes and bags full of equipment that NYU’s team will take to Greenland in a few months. One radar measures the speed of ice, which reminds Voytenko of what qualifies as an alarm clock in Greenland: a calving event can sound like you’re being woken up by a jet engine.
Scientists like Voytenko have a front row seat to a changing planet. For one afternoon, a small group of high school students from Queens got a chance to sample the view.
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