2014 Thacher Environmental Research Contest

The 2014 Thacher Contest winners have been announced. To read more about the winning entries, click here.

2014 Thacher Contest Entry Form

2014 Thacher Contest Brochure

Contest Rules
How to Submit
Guiding Questions


California’s Rim Fire, named for its proximity to the Rim of the World vista point in the Stanislaus National Forest, raged uncontained for more than two months. The fire burned over 250,000 acres of forest near and in Yosemite National Park, destroyed homes and businesses, and impacted air quality conditions hundreds of miles away. It was the largest wildfire in 2013 and the third largest in the history of California. 

As firefighters combatted the flames, satellite instruments helped those on the ground characterize the conditions, activity and extent of the fire. Scientists and government officials used these and other remote sensing assets to plan mitigation strategies, understand weather conditions in the region, determine air quality and identify risks.

This is just another example of how satellite remote sensing data and analysis tools take the planet’s pulse every day, enabling decision makers – individuals, businesses, communities and governments – to make informed decisions about how best to manage natural resources. They also have a role to play in improving understanding about how natural protected areas like the Yosemite National Park are changing – whether due to extreme events like the Rim Fire or to long-term human and environmental changes.

Millions of acres of terrestrial and ocean territory in the United States have been designated as protected areas. A national park, a national wildlife refuge system, and a national marine sanctuary are examples of protected areas where activities and the use of natural resources – including flora and fauna – are governed by a specific set of rules to protect the natural environment.

You have surely heard of or even visited the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona or Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. But you may be less familiar with the Bitteroot National Forest in Montana and Idaho, the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington state or the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. These are just some of the over 400 national parks, 155 national forests, 560 refuges and other protected areas in the United States.

In addition to being places of incredible natural beauty, protected areas are havens for biodiversity and provide multiple contributions to society, often described as ecosystem services. Protected areas also hold historical significance, promote cultural values and traditions, and yield significant benefits at the local, regional and national level in areas as diverse as education, public health and the economy.  

Did you know?

  • In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida’s Pelican Island as the first wildlife refuge.
  • There is at least one national wildfire refuge in every state and territory.  Which ones are near where you live?
  • In 2011, national wildlife refuges contributed $2.4 billion to the national economy.
  • One of the nation’s earliest wildlife protection efforts, the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, is celebrating its 105th birthday in March 2014!
  • About 53 percent of US water supply originates on forest land. 
  • By 2009, the first effort to document all species within an area in the U.S. – also known as an All Taxa Inventory – had discovered over 850 species new to science. 

Protected areas are at risk, however. Climate change, islandization, pollution, land-use change and higher demand of water and other natural resources represent some of the most pressing long-term challenges facing protected areas in the United States and abroad.  

Given the importance of understanding the past, present and future of protected areas the 2014 Thacher Environmental Research Contest challenges high school students to examine U.S. protected areas using geospatial tools and data to determine the changes and potential for future change in these areas.

The Thacher Environmental Research Contest (formerly the Thacher Scholars Award) is a national competition for secondary school students founded by IGES in honor of former IGES board member Peter Thacher, who died in 1999. Peter Thacher was former deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, NASA advisor and, at the time of his death, president of the Earth Council Foundation/U.S.  He was a leader in promoting the use of satellite remote sensing.

Prizes will be awarded to secondary school students (grades 9-12) designing and conducting the best projects examining the changing conditions of a protected area using satellite remote sensing data and geospatial analysis tools. Three cash awards will be given – 1st place – $2,000, 2nd place – $1,000 and 3rd place – $500.


Student Awards:  Three cash awards will be given — 1st place – $2,000, 2nd place – $1,000 and 3rd place – $500.  Cash awards for team entries will be split among the winning team members.

Teacher Awards:  In addition to prizes for the winning students, the teachers of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place students/teams will receive a $200 amazon.com gift card.  If the student’s participation is part of an after-school club or other activity independent of school, the student can identify an adult “coach” on their entry form who would be eligible for this award (e.g., a parent, club leader, etc.).  Only one teacher or coach recognition award will be provided for each 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place entry.


1. Any student who is enrolled in and attending secondary school (grades 9-12 – public, private, parochial, Native American reservation, or home school) in the United States or U.S. territories; or

2. Any student who is a United States citizen and enrolled in a secondary school (grades 9-12) attending:

  • Department of Defense Dependents’ Overseas School or an accredited overseas American or International School; or
  • foreign school as an exchange student; or
  • a foreign school because his/her parent(s) are temporarily working and living abroad.

3. Entries can be submitted by individuals or teams.  In the case of team entries, the cash award will be split equally among the winning team members.  All team members must meet eligibility requirements.


Entries must be sent via email or postmarked by May 5, 2014.  The winning entries will be announced by the week of June 2, 2014.


  • Only one entry per student.
  • Student reports should not exceed 20 pages (including title page, abstract, text, maps/images/charts/tables, and any appendices).
  • Students should pick a presentation style that best suits their project.  However, all reports should contain a title page (with project title, student’s name and contact information, teacher/coach name and contact information); abstract (a short description of the project, no more than 300 words); discussion of the procedures that they followed and results/what they learned; and references.
  • Every submission must include a completed entry form.
  • Page format:  8 1/2 x 11″ single-sided paper, 1 inch margins (top, bottom, and sides), 12 point font and double spacing.
  • All sources and or references used (including websites) must be credited/referenced.  Students may use the style guide of their choice. There are several major style guides from which students can choose, e.g., Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and stylebooks of several newspapers (N.Y. Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.).
  • No project will be eligible that involves human or non-human vertebrate animal experimentation.
  • For entries submitted in hard copy, please submit two sets of the entire entry (1 original and 1 copy), including entry form.
  • Signed, complete entries must be postmarked May 5, 2014.
  • The names of the winning entries will be posted by May 21, 2014 at http://www.strategies.org.
  • Late or incomplete entries will be disqualified.
  • All entries will become the property of IGES and will not be returned.
  • Winners agree that information and photographs about their entries can be used on IGES’ website and in IGES’ publications (e.g., brochures, annual reports), press releases, and for other publicity purposes.
  • As a condition of entry, entrants agree that IGES shall have the right to use, copy, reproduce, publish, modify and make available the entry to the public via IGES’ website for any purpose, including but not limited to advertising and promotion of the contest.
  • Acceptance of a prize constitutes permission for, and winners consent to, IGES to use a winner’s name, likeness and entry for advertising and promotional purposes without additional compensation.
  • IGES plans to periodically contact winning students (e.g., annually to track academic and career paths). Winning entrants agree to respond to brief follow-up surveys.


Entries will be judged by IGES staff based on the following criteria:  scientific/technical accuracy; creativity/originality; quality of presentation; thoroughness of research/methods/procedures; quality of conclusions; and demonstration of knowledge gained.

Judging Rubrics

Criteria – What judges are looking for:

Scientific/Technical Accuracy

  • The question/problem being studied is stated clearly and unambiguously.
  • Scientific and/or technical facts and principles are correct and stated accurately throughout.
  • All measurements/mathematical calculations are correct.


The project showed originality/creative ability in:

  • The question asked/problem studied.
  • The approach to solving the problem.
  • The interpretation of the data.
  • Presentation of results.

Quality of Presentation

  • Well written and engaging, with no spelling or grammatical errors.
  • Clearly focused with well-organized beginning, middle, and ending.
  • Presentation style well-suited to the type of project.
  • References are provided for all sources.
  • Graphics, images, charts/tables are all clearly labeled and units of measurement identified.
  • Consistent style throughout – e.g., how references are cited, punctuation.

Thoroughness of Research/Methods/Procedures

  • Adequate data were collected to support the conclusions.
  • Where appropriate, conclusions are based upon multiple trials or replications.
  • The student is aware of other theories or approaches.
  • Conclusions and/or data analysis describe possible errors or flaws.
  • The student allowed himself or herself enough time to perform a thorough investigation.

Quality of Conclusions

  • Data and results are clearly stated.
  • Conclusions are insightful, clearly stated and flow logically from the data presented.
  • The reason for studying the problem and/ or significance of findings is explained.


Institute for Global Environmental Strategies
Attention: Thacher Scholars Award
1600 Wilson Blvd., Suite 600
Arlington, VA 22209
or submit your entry as a PDF file by emailing it to: ThacherContest [at] strategies [dot] org


Use the resources below to identify a U.S. protected area of interest – it could be located in your neighborhood or state or in another part of the country! Design a research project that utilizes satellite data and geospatial analysis tools to answer the following questions:

  • How is this protected area unique? Consider the area’s physical characteristics (size, location, etc.), biodiversity (plants and animals), and history.  
  • How does the protected area contribute to society? Specify a variety of benefits enabled by this protected area locally, regionally or nationally. Consider, for example, its contributions to the economy, recreation, education, or public health.  In some instances, protected areas also shield locations from storms, flooding, fires, and other natural events.
  • How has this area changed over time? What data and methods will you use to do your investigation? Consider at least one parameter of measurable change and use data to support your analysis.
  • Has this change impacted any of the ecosystem services and benefits you outlined above? How?
  • What is the potential for future change in the protected area? Is it due to climate change, policy or another reason? What do you recommend could be done to address or manage this change?  
  •  If you were able to visit this protected area in person, what kind of fieldwork would you do?  What would you like to confirm about your research or see for yourself?
  • What are additional questions related to the specific area you are studying that you believe are important to explore? 

As with any research project you might do, consider:

  • What is/are your hypothesis/problem statement/objectives for your project?
  • What do you already know about this problem/topic?  What do you need to learn for your project?
  • What procedures or methods will you use to do your investigation?  How will you analyze data?
  • After completing your project, are there things that you would do differently to re-design this investigation or are there alternate solutions/explanations?


Background Information


  • NASA Mapping Our World 
    Provides an introduction to the concepts, NASA technologies, and basics of mapping with the articles, blog posts, and other resources on this website. 
  • NASA Landsat Website
    The Landsat Program is a series of Earth-observing satellite missions jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. Landsat satellites have taken specialized digital photographs of Earth’s continents and surrounding coastal regions for over three decades, enabling people to study many aspects of our planet and to evaluate the dynamic changes caused by both natural processes and human practices.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

National Parks Service

  • Explore Nature
    Specific issues of concern include access to lots of resources (issues: air, biology, geology, natural sounds, water)
  • Explore Air
    Offers information on U.S. laws and policy regarding air quality.


The USGS “serves the Nation by providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life.”  Visit the following USGS Websites to learn more about resources that are available.

History of Protected Areas in the United States: 

Bureau of Land Management – National Conservation Lands

U.S. Forest Service – Ecosystem Service 

National Parks: America’s Best Idea

Data & Analysis


    MND’s Live Access Server (LAS) provides easy access to and analysis tools for over 200 NASA Earth science data sets. Students can generate charts, plots, and graphs for a wide variety of parameters. The site also includes peer-reviewed lesson plans on a variety of STEM topics, instructional videos, and links to other data sources. 
  • NASA Earth Observatory
    NASA’s Earth Observatory is an interactive Web-based magazine where the public can obtain new satellite imagery and scientific information about our home planet. Visit the Earth Observatory to read feature articles on wide-ranging Earth system science topics, download datasets and images for analysis, read breaking news, learn about current and planned Earth missions, search an online library for reference materials, track natural hazards around the world in near-real time, and access interactive experiments and classroom activities.
  • Visible Earth
    This companion site to the NASA Earth Observatory is a comprehensive image gallery for access to NASA Earth science images, animations and data visualizations. Most resources are available digitally at multiple resolutions, with captions and metadata.
  • NASA Earth Observations (NEO)
    Browse and download imagery of satellite data from NASA’s constellation of Earth Observing System satellites. 
  • NASA EOSDIS Worldview

U.S Forest Service



ESRI designs and develops the world’s leading geographic information system (GIS) technology.  Visit the following ESRI websites for resources on using GIS:

  • ESRI’s GIS for Schools Website includes numerous resources for using GIS with all educational levels. 
  • Education Community Web Portal
    Website for the exchange of ideas and experiences, curriculum, software, and data between GIS educators around the globe. 
  • ArcGIS Free Online Public Account
    Create, store and manage maps, apps, and data, and share them with others. You also get access to maps and apps shared by ESRI and GIS users around the world.  
  • ARC Lessons ArcLessons is a resource for teachers to share lessons for using GIS in the classroom. Browse a list of lessons by category or use the search tools to find lessons in your area of interest. 

Landsat-7 Datasets: LAN Files for Use with MultiSpec
This site provides a number of Landsat 7 scene subsets as LAN files that are intended for use with Purdue University’s MultiSpec software. Users also have the option of downloading the Landsat images as TIFF files in four different band combinations. Links are included to download Multi-Spec, a MultiSpec tutorial, and an introduction to remote-sensing PowerPoint presentation with detailed notes.

Terra Server
Online database of aerial photos, satellite images and USGS topo maps.  Free to search and display lower resolution images; to access/download full resolution requires subscription. 

National Park Service – Air Quality Monitoring

Google Earth



  • Entry form is completed.
  • Entry form is signed by student and a teacher, parent, or coach.
  • Title page includes the following information: project title, student’s name and contact information, teacher/coach name and contact information.
  • Abstract is included that is no longer than 300 words.
  • 8.5″ x 11″ single-sided paper, 1-inch margins (top, bottom, and sides), 12 point font and double spacing.
  • References are provided for all sources (including websites).  The reference should be complete enough for a judge to locate the source.  Students may use the style guide of their choice.
  • Entries can be submitted either as (a) hard copies or (b) emailed as PDF files to ThacherScholars [at] strategies [dot] org.  If you are submitting your entry in hard copy, please include two sets of the entire entry (1 original and 1 copy), including entry form, are submitted to IGES.
  • Keep one complete copy for your records.
  • Complete entries must be postmarked May 5, 2014 and sent to: Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Attention: Thacher Scholarship, 1600 Wilson Blvd., Suite 600, Arlington, VA 22209; (703) 312-0823.