Virtually there

For NCAR’s Don Middleton, the uneasy days after 9/11 shed unexpected light on the transformative power of global connectivity. Middleton had been scheduled to attend a meeting on advanced collaboratories in Italy, but the event was cancelled. Instead, participants met virtually on an Internet-based platform called the AccessGrid, developed at Argonne National Laboratory, that allows dozens of people to see, hear, and interact with each other. “It was amazing,” recalled Middleton.

The Vislab is NCAR’s Visualization Lab, completely remodeled in 2001. At its heart is a projection screen that stretches roughly 12 feet wide and 7 feet high. The big screen allows scientists to don 3-D glasses and scrutinize NCAR-produced visualizations of hurricanes, solar magnetic eruptions, and many other phenomena, all in illuminating detail.

With the help of the AccessGrid, which includes dozens of UCAR member institutions among its 300-plus global nodes, the Vislab can host workshops, tutorials, and other meetings involving participants from around the world. According to Middleton, “There’s a strong sense of presence—and that translates to real, meaningful interactions.”

AccessGrid meetings are just one of many ways in which UCAR and NCAR are using networked technology and distance learning to extend their reach. In 2009 the Vislab added h.323, a high-definition videoconferencing system that serves key UCAR members outside the AccessGrid. Elsewhere around the institution, more than 300 videoconferences took place in 2009, including a record seven in one day.

Photo of darkened room with people sitting looking at large world map on screen
Output from global modeling looms large in the NCAR Vislab. (Photo by Rolf Kjolseth.)

Many UCAR/NCAR-sponsored events stream live on the Internet as they unfold, and a Web archive includes hundreds of past seminars. Along with boosting university relations, 21st-century connectivity is also bringing NCAR science to new audiences, such as the 200-plus middle and high school science teachers who have taken part in Climate Discovery, a series of three six-week online courses.

Thousands of educators and students benefit from the National Science Digital Library, whose NSDL Resource Center is based at UCAR. Along with generating crucial metadata on science-related websites, the NSF-funded project is building “trust networks” of allied users who help each other locate and build online resources. “We’ve developed a very robust community over the years. In many ways, this is the heart of NSDL,” says Susan Van Gundy, the library’s director of education and outreach. UCAR also played a lead role in developing the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE), which includes more than 13,000 online resources. In 2009 NCAR became the first federally funded research center to adopt an open access policy, extending the reach of its scientists’ publications.

The Web has revolutionized the work of UCAR’s Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training (COMET). Founded in 1990 to train civilian and military forecasters, COMET grappled at first with the limits of technology. Residence courses were a success, but computer-based learning modules distributed on laser disc and CD-ROM were “expensive and not very flexible,” says COMET director Timothy Spangler. “University and international use was very low.”

Starting in 2000, Flash software allowed COMET to place its modules on the Web. Now offered free to all interested parties through COMET’s MetEd website, the wide-ranging modules are a smash hit. More than 50,000 students from more than 1,000 colleges and universities have enrolled in COMET’s online courses, and some 45,000 people from nearly every country have used the modules, which are highly adaptable. For example, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology Training Centre combines material from the modules with local cases, and the center has teamed with COMET to produce Australia-specific content. “We greatly appreciate the material that COMET provides to the international meteorological training community,” says the center’s Roger Deslandes.


Today — Climate as a teaching opportunity

Photo of Donna Charlevoix

"The students will address real-world problems related to climate."

—Donna Charlevoix, UCAR

Beginning in September 2011, tens of thousands of students across the planet will be investigating climate—and sharing their findings with each other virtually—through the GLOBE Student Climate Research Campaign (SCRC). It’s one of the most ambitious projects to date undertaken by the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment program. Founded in 1994, GLOBE has been managed by UCAR since 2003, with support from NASA, NOAA, NSF, and the U.S. Department of State.

The ever-expanding reach of the Internet makes a worldwide climate inquiry by students more feasible than ever. The program already entrains more than 100,000 K–12 students in over 110 nations who take regular scientific measurements of the environment at their schools and at research sites. “We have members of the GLOBE community who ride their bicycles a half hour to the nearest Internet café to upload their GLOBE data,” says Eric Carpenter, one of the lead members of the SCRC team.

With climate a topic of keen international interest, Carpenter and his colleagues are developing the year-plus SCRC as a way to not only engage students but also collect data that could prove useful to scientists—for example, in verifying site-specific observations gathered via satellites such as NASA’s CloudSat. The core goal, however, is helping students to better understand climate’s connection to the areas where they live.

Photo of three boys looking at test tubes
Joining peers around the  world, students in southern Thailand measure precipitation as part of a GLOBE Program activity. (Photo by Paula Robinson, UCAR/GLOBE.)

“Every classroom will have an opportunity to look at the relationship between their community and their climate,” says GLOBE assistant director Donna Charlevoix, who joined GLOBE from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The campaign’s participants and their findings will be connected in several climate-relevant ways. Data from locations along a common latitude—say, from Argentina, South Africa, and Australia—could be compared and contrasted. Other key variables will include elevation and water availability.

The SCRC won’t have to start from scratch: GLOBE has years of environmental investigations by students and teachers and numerous learning activities on which to draw. GLOBE’s Seasons and Biomes Project already helps students gather and interpret data on local ecosystems. “Now they’re going to use the data to examine the factors that influence their climate,” notes Carpenter. Another focal point, he says, will be carbon and energy: “Imagine students around the world measuring and calculating the carbon content of trees near their schools.”

Through online communication tools, SCRC students and educators will be encouraged to build on input from climate science experts in their regions and around the world. “It is designed to be a community-driven campaign,” says Charlevoix. According to GLOBE director Edward Geary, “We provide the basic infrastructure that makes GLOBE happen, and our worldwide community of schools runs with it.”