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Annotating Change in Satellite Images

LuAnn Dahlman, Center for Science Teaching and Learning, TERC, LuAnn_Dahlman@terc.edu - Starting Point Page by Rebecca Teed (SERC)

Changes in land area in the Pearl River area of China from 1988-1995
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: December 10, 2004 | Reviewed: November 25, 2019


During this exercise, students compare a series of satellite images taken 3-4 years apart to investigate the effects of human land use. They will annotate the images using ImageJ software and use the annotated images to explain their findings. The LANDSAT images provided show an area near Hong Kong where land is being reclaimed from the sea by dredging. The students can use ImageJ to compare images from 1988, 1992, and 1995 and to mark areas of land that have been reclaimed between 1988 and 1992 and those that were reclaimed between 1992 and 1995. They will then add a legend to the map, which can then be used as part of report on land reclamation and its effect on the Earth system. Annotating Change in Satellite Images is part of the Earth Exploration Toolbook, a collection of detailed exercises which involve using data to teach about Earth systems.

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Learning Goals

This exercise will
  • Familiarize students with ImageJ software
  • Have students work with real-world data
  • Teach students to interpret and annotate satellite photos
  • Impress upon students the magnitude of human land use changes

Context for Use

This could be used during a class period or the start of a lab for a introductory geology, environmental studies, or geography class, as it only takes about an hour. The students need access to computers and the Internet.

Teaching Materials

Annotating Change in Satellite Images is a detailed guide to this exercise, with step-by-step directions and links to all of the necessary resources.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The software is simple and stable, but can be a little frustrating to learn to use. Stress to students the need to read the directions carefully. The map exercise is optimal for individual students, but if there are not enough computers, make sure that students take turns using the mouse.


The maps and a recommended short research paper can be used for assessment.

References and Resources

  • Numerous links are included in the "Going Further" section.
  • The sample images included in ImageJ also suggest other applications for the program, such as counting tree rings to determine its age.
  • Satellite photos for your area can probably be retrieved from Microsoft TerraServer (more info) .