Roberta Marie Johnson

University of Illinois

2016 Athelstan Spilhaus Award Winner

Roberta Marie Johnson received the 2016 Athelstan Spilhaus Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 14 December 2016 in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors an individual “for their enhancement of the public engagement with Earth and space sciences.”


It gives me great pleasure to cite Roberta Johnson for the Athelstan Spilhaus Award. Through her career Roberta has worked to share the excitement and beauty of Earth and space through Windows to the Universe and programs for the public. This started in the early 1990s when she understood the potential power of the Internet to support scientific research and inform and excite large and diverse audiences about the wonders of the geosciences.

Roberta began her career as a research geophysicist studying upper atmospheric dynamics. While involved in this research, she also became involved in efforts to develop educational extensions to NASA missions. This effort resulted in her receiving initial funding in 1994 for the ­award-­winning Windows to the Universe website, focused on bringing the beauty and wonder of Earth and space science to the public, students, and teachers. Shortly thereafter, as director of the Michigan Space Grant Consortium, she expanded her efforts to include public outreach events. Later, as director of education and outreach at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and at the University of Albany, she continued her focus on ­Internet-based outreach through Windows to the Universe in addition to working with colleagues to develop new museum exhibits and organizing large public events.

Roberta served as the executive director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association (­NESTA). Under her leadership, ­NESTA has become revitalized, with new partnerships, projects, and opportunities and a membership that grew significantly above previous levels.

Her most significant and enduring accomplishment is the creation, development, growth, and continuity of Windows to the Universe (http://­, which includes an extensive multilevel website and associated teacher professional development program. Roberta and her team have maintained and grown this resource in service to the geoscience community, the public, students, and teachers. The website, now translated into Spanish and hosted by ­NESTA, is one of the most popular Earth and space science websites in the world, with ~12 million visitors per year.

Since she began working in geoscience education efforts, she has continued to be motivated by a desire to share the wonder, beauty, and relevance of the geosciences with students, teachers, and the public. For her commitment and her ceaseless efforts to bring the excitement, significance, and beauty of the Earth and space sciences to the public, students, and educators, Dr. Roberta Johnson clearly deserves the AGU Athelstan Spilhaus Award.

—Tamara Shapiro Ledley, TERC, Cambridge, Mass.


I am deeply honored to receive this recognition from AGU for my work in sharing the geosciences with the public. I would like to thank AGU; Tamara Ledley, my citationist; and colleagues Sandra Henderson, Geoffrey ­Haines-­Stiles, and Michael Passow, who supported my nomination. I’d also like to thank the dozens of educators, scientists, and other specialists who worked on the Windows to the Universe project over the past 22 years, including in particular my fellow graduate student, dear friend, and colleague, Claudia Joan Alexander, whom we tragically lost in 2015.

My passion for sharing the geosciences with the public began in the early 1990s while I was doing upper atmospheric research at the University of Michigan. I had become deeply motivated to help the public appreciate the awesome beauty of our planet and the wonders of the universe so that we could become better stewards of our environment. I’ve always had a passion for the humanities as well. For me, connecting the geosciences to other disciplines might provide the “hooks” needed to reach others not already in the scientific “frame of mind.”

In 1994, I submitted a successful proposal to NASA to develop ­Internet-­based resources for the public spanning geoscience and the humanities, which led to the Windows to the Universe website. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to lead the Michigan Space Grant Consortium. This led to expansion of my activities to include organizing large public events, professional and workforce development, and later public exhibits. Windows to the Universe quickly rose in popularity. I recall, while still at the University of Michigan, being amazed to have reached the milestone of a Michigan football stadium’s worth of unique users in a month. Today the website is used by a Michigan stadium’s worth of users in 2 days! Since its inception, the website has been used by over 300 million users worldwide.

A critical part of our success was our effort to make the website useful to K–12 educators by providing resources appropriate for classroom use, and by creating multilevel bilingual content. Our team worked hard to get these resources to teachers—looking back, I’ve calculated that during my time working on the website and as executive director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, we offered over 400 professional development workshops, reaching over 20,000 teachers and thereby millions of students, in addition to our website outreach. Thanks again, AGU!

—Roberta Marie Johnson, University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana