Colorado State University Atmospheric Scientist Honored with $700,000 Early Career Award, Bringing Science to Life for Teachers

Note to Reporters: A photo of Thomas Birner is available with the news release at

Colorado State University Professor Thomas Birner doesn’t mind if science looks a little silly.

Last month, he taught about 40 Colorado K-12 teachers while he was dressed as the guy from the early 20th century (Frenchman Léon Teisserenc de Bort) who discovered – jointly with German Richard Assmann – the stratosphere.

That love for science history is incorporated into his latest grant – a five-year, $700,000 Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation to study the dynamics of the tropical upper troposphere and lower stratosphere. This atmospheric region represents the gateway for atmospheric trace gases to enter the stratosphere (such as water vapor and ozone, but also many ozone depleting substances).

“We didn’t always know there was a stratosphere – there was a point in history when people discovered it. I dressed up as one of the two scientists from around 1900 who made that discovery and went through the story behind the discovery,” said Birner, assistant professor of Atmospheric Science. “When teaching science we spend a lot of time talking about the science itself. I have this interest in the history of science and I believe that telling the tales of great discoveries and therefore how science is being done is just as important.”

The stratosphere is the atmospheric layer above the weather layer (the troposphere), where ozone shields the Earth’s surface from harmful ultraviolet radiation and temperature rises as you go up.

With his new grant, Birner will use computer models of varying complexity to more fully understand the region at the interface between the tropical troposphere and stratosphere, located about 10 miles above ground.

“This is a fairly small region of the atmosphere, yet it is among the most important but least understood regions of the global climate system. For example, temperatures in that region determine how much water gets into the stratosphere. That water is crucial in determining climate throughout the entire stratosphere with important consequences for such things as the ozone hole, but even for surface climate,” Birner said. “Our current ability to predict how that’s going to change in the future is very limited.”

Birner’s grant also includes an educational component that aims to introduce students and the general public to atmospheric science through tales of major scientific discoveries including the discovery of the stratosphere, the Brewer-Dobson circulation, the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation and the ozone hole. Birner will collaborate with Professor Leonard Albright’s group at CSU’s School of Education to develop and evaluate these educational activities.

“Thomas is just outstanding,” said Scott Denning, who runs the summer science program for teachers through the Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes, a multi-institutional NSF center based at CSU. “He has dressed the part of an historical figure two times now in our CMMAP summer course, “Weather and Climate for Teachers." He’s telling stories – he’s bringing the science to life.”

“The goal of the activity is to teach science from a historical perspective, emphasizing science as a human and social endeavor that occurs within a particular historical context,” Birner said. “This approach has been used to teach physics to general audiences, and studies show that the historical approach can make physics more approachable for non-specialists.”