Atmospheric Visualization Collection: Developments in the NSDL

Christopher Klaus, Keith Andrew1, and Gerald Mace2
Decision and Information Sciences, Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, IL 60439, USA
1Department of Physics, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, IL 61920, USA
2Department of Meteorology, University of Utah, Salt Lake, UT 84112, USA


The Atmospheric Visualization Collection is one of the NSF National STEME Digital Library projects, which seek to develop the digital library through novel collaborative methods. This project is based on research-oriented data collected from the Department of Energy's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement program. It seeks to establish educational materials that are appropriate for all levels of learning while incorporating interactive assessment and development activities. Learning activities include online and offline tools for visualization and manipulation of atmospheric data, interfaces for independent learning, educational units that include streaming video and hypothesis testing, and code development opportunities.


digital libraries, atmospheric visualization, user interfaces, lesson plans

1 Introduction

The intent of the Atmospheric Visualization Collection (AVC) is to enhance physical science education by gathering near-real-time visualizations of atmospheric data and the associated visualization codes for use by researchers, students and teachers. The effort is a National Science Foundation (NSF) National STEME Digital Library (NSDL) [National Research Council 1997] [Arms et al. 1998][Mathematical Sciences Education Board 1999][Mogk and Zia 1996] project with two essential components [Andrew et al. 2001][Klaus et al. 2001]. The first is an archive of weather images based on data from the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program [Barr and Sisterson 2000]. The second is educational material based on these images developed by a growing educational community, which utilizes digital libraries [Wattenberg 1998].

To establish a permanent collection, one of the major efforts is to establish an interactive user and provider community. Showing teachers how to observe weather actively by working with this collection encourages them to share the excitement of analyzing atmospheric data with their students in a variety of settings. The insights gained by their use serve as feedback for the creation of more educational material in a collaborative environment, thereby completing an education cycle of user to provider. Many organizations have produced visualization tools based on the instruments that exist at ARM sites. Public access to such tools through our repository and access to the ARM Archive allows users to create their own imagery of ARM data. Collaborative tools for code development encourage users to contribute improved versions of these tools, completing another cycle of user to provider.

Interested teachers in the science classroom are motivated to develop interactive student learning activities similar to those being produced for this collection. Such involvement will allow them to expose their students to a data sharing environment that can be used to ignite and sustain their interest in science and learning. These activities also serve as professional advancement opportunities for in-service teachers.

This paper briefly reviews the fundamental ARM data used to produce our images, the user interfaces for our atmospheric images, our user communities and interactive tools.

2 Fundamental ARM Data

The focus of our collection is the ARM Southern Great Plains (SGP) site, which has the largest group of remote sensing atmospheric instruments in the world. The SGP site collects data on the effects and interactions of sunlight, radiant energy, clouds, temperature, weather and climate. A variety of sensors collect this data, which is archived from 1989 onward for public retrieval at the ARM Archive [McCord 2002a, b]. Data usage has been observed since the implementation of the site (Figure 1). Anomalous spikes appear in the usage rate shortly after special intensive observation periods/campaigns conducted by ARM scientists.

figure 1

Figure 1. Gigabytes versus time

3 User Interfaces for Atmospheric Images

After initial user reviews it soon became apparent that interfaces to the visualization database could not be the same for researchers and educators. Thus different user interfaces were developed for different users. To be brief, we will only review the geophysical focus area interface for educational users.

This interface breaks the images into six focus areas: aerosols, atmospheric state, clouds, long wavelength radiation, short wavelength radiation, and surface energy exchange. Selecting the focus area of interest through an image map (Figure 2) explains why ARM studies that focus area, and what instruments collect data on that focus area. Visualizations from each instrument can be displayed and collected for study. Sections 3.1 and 3.2 describe some typical examples.

figure 2

Figure 2. Geophysical focus area user interface

3.1 Millimeter Cloud Radar

The Millimeter Cloud Radar (MMCR) provides data associated with cloud properties. The MMCR transmits a radar pulse directly overhead to determine the location of the tops and bottoms of clouds. It also serves as a type of Doppler radar in measuring upward and downward particle movement within a cloud. The MMCR measures Doppler velocity, radar reflectivity, and spectral width. A reflectivity plot displaying the intensity of the back scattered radar beam is shown in Figure 3. The annotation of prime case study images is currently underway for each instrument. Such annotated images allow easier interpretation of daily images and form a good resource for educational material.

figure 3

Figure 3. MMCR reflectivity plot annotated to demonstrate various features

3.2 Balloon Borne Sounding System

The SkewT plots allow basic storm predictions with data from the Balloon Borne Sounding System (BBSS/Sonde). A Sonde consists of a small box attached to a gas-filled balloon. During regular operations these weather balloons are launched every eight hours at the SGP site. As they ascend they measure and transmit air pressure, temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and wind direction. From this information scientists can derive dew point, latitude and longitude of the balloon, and the horizontal u and v components of wind.

Figure 4, the SkewT thermodynamic diagram, plots the logarithm of the atmospheric pressure in the vertical, which is indirectly related to the altitude of the balloon. The diagonal blue lines are temperature lines, the grey diagonal lines going from left to right are the saturated mixing ratio lines, the red curves represent the dry adiabatic lapse rate, the green curves represent the saturated adiabatic lapse rate, the red data curve is the Sonde dew point and the blue data curve is the Sonde temperature. Weather indices are listed in a column in the upper left and wind speed barbs are given in a column on the right.

figure 4

Figure 4. Sonde SkewT thermodynamic plot

Reviews from teachers made us realize the importance of documentation and lesson plans, especially for difficult-to-understand images like the SkewT plots. The first set of formal reviews was collected during a one credit hour summer seminar for teachers. The teachers attended lectures on the foundations of weather modeling and were then given access to the Web site. After using the site they filled out surveys covering ease of use, access to data and anticipated usefulness in their classroom settings. Another group of teachers were surveyed after taking our workshop on using this collection. Educational reviewers used information from this survey to suggest potential changes during online team meetings. Many of these suggestions were implemented, especially the lowering of information density per page. While scientists use an enormous amount of information, teachers prefer fewer topics with more introductory descriptions of the data. The teachers also wanted annotated examples of atmospheric images, clear photographs of the instrument taking the data, and related lesson plan links on each page of introductory material describing these atmospheric images. With these changes and the proper documentation, Tim McCollum, a project member and middle school reviewer and teacher, along with other teachers using our collection, engaged their students in exploring SkewT plots (see Tim's students in Figure 5).

figure 5

Figure 5. Students at Charleston Middle School exploring SkewT plots

4 User Communities and Interactive Tools

The NSDL is affecting the total environment for the learning of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and education (STEME) community. The NSDL provides new opportunities to strengthen and expand student learning by allowing students with different and varied learning styles and backgrounds to learn at their own rate focused on their own goals; allowing students access to research databases such as the ARM database; and to model and explore scientific ideas as insights motivate their own genuine research goals.

A major goal of this project is to make it easier for educators and researchers to interpret and interact with weather data. By lowering the threshold required to access atmospheric data and encouraging an environment of collaboration, more students will have the opportunity to explore the nature of scientific research, working together to deepen our knowledge of climate changes, global warming, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other atmospheric events.

4.1 Research Community

Our initial community, which is still an active portion of our user base, is the ARM community. The project's near-real-time images assist ARM scientists with planning during intensive operational periods/campaigns. These visualizations are included in ARM's effort to ensure data quality [Bahrmann et al. 2002], and they allow a visual inspection of data before downloading raw data for further research.

Since the visualization tools are available for downloading from our code repository, researchers and students can produce their own images of data from the ARM Archive. Our intent is to allow students and researchers the opportunity to modify and create their own visualization codes using our collection as examples. For the advanced student or researcher these codes are sufficient to start an investigation or to develop new methods of visualization and understanding that leads to publication.

Currently, advanced users can report bugs, suggest new features, and make support requests for these visualization codes through tracking tools on the NSDL Communication Portal seen in Figure 6 [Tracking tools]. The ARM scientists and ARM Instrument mentors have used these tools successfully for requesting improvements to the visualization tools, to report problems, and to suggest new tools that would make their work easier. For example, the Chilled Mirror instrument visualization code was recently revised to produce more accurate calculations of relative humidity. In the near future, these users will be able to share their programming efforts using a collaborative development tool on the NSDL Communication Portal. Visualization tools developed in this fashion would go through the same ARM review process as other visualization tools before joining this collection.

figure 6

Figure 6. Tracking tools hosted on the NSDL Communication Portal

4.2 Educational Community

The NSDL portal will allow us to provide a platform for engaging students in collaborative inter-institutional and interdisciplinary activities; exploring and analyzing large, primary databases; manipulating multi-dimensional images; and making use of sophisticated instruments. We want to develop an attitude of exploration, conjecture, hypothesis and investigation as a natural theme of our collection.

The AVC is designed to include connections for educators that will:

  1. have the appropriate level of scientific and mathematical content
  2. be easy to access and comprehend
  3. be appropriate for the grade level and pedagogically clear
  4. be accompanied by sufficient narrative material for a motivated teacher to produce lesson plans.

In this regard we have hired educational reviewers for different grade levels to assist with establishing value, quality and content level for the K-6 level, middle school, high school and undergraduate level. This education team has developed quality and usage rubrics used to help referee submissions. They use the atmospheric images in their classrooms during the school year, reporting best practices gained from use of this material. They have analyzed and implemented online activities for students. A signup page is available for teachers interested in such online activities (Figure 7).

figure 7

Figure 7. Signup page for educational units

We have a host of weather-related activities for students to collect data or experiment with data. Currently there are 13 active lesson plans, eight of which contain interactive applets developed either by the University of Wisconsin or our own development team. We have interactive Java applets dealing with topics such as wind chill, heat index and wind speed, and full lesson plans dealing with topics related to humidity, pressure and cloud types. One example is a lesson plan on how to draw contours. The associated Java applet is shown in Figure 8.

figure 8

Figure 8. Java applet for drawing isopleths (contours)

With access to a Wiki server hosted by the NSDL Communication Portal, our collection now includes a lesson plan sandbox [ Getting Started with the Lesson Plan Sandbox]. This embodies a new form of educational collaboration where lesson plans can be contributed, edited, or simply reviewed for accuracy through a Web browser. Various lesson plans using our atmospheric images are available in this sandbox [ Lesson Plan Sandbox] (Figure 9). Undergraduate students, graduate students, high school teachers, middle school teachers and professors have already contributed to our collection in this fashion. Using interactive snow flake and lightning Java scripts from the University of Wisconsin, we are now providing our first elementary school lesson to be field tested with third graders this semester.

figure 9

Figure 9. Lesson plan sandbox

This growing team of users serves both as authors and referees for the available material. Qualified referees use and help to develop a standard rubric for analysis. As material passes these reviews, stable versions of the lesson plans are placed in our main collection. Currently our educational reviewers are providing the refereeing through the sandbox editing tool. When material is submitted or modified the reviewers receive an email notification. This allows them to review and respond to the additions on a weekly basis.

One of our teachers, Tim McCollum, has videotaped student activities involving the use of our collection. These are being time synchronised with the associated educational material. Soon, teachers and students will be able to study these "video lesson plans" at their own pace with navigation tools commonly associated with VCRs and with a table of contents similar to that of a book.

5 Conclusion

The AVC seeks to provide an example of an open scientific portal, offering research quality data as well as experiences for scientists, teachers and students. These interactive collaborative tools will bring a community of users and developers to this collection as well as to the whole NSDL. It is a small but engaging model of some of the powerful new learning strategies that the NSDL will make possible to many people in the near future.

Teachers using this collection have found this experience rewarding and worthy of further interaction. A few teachers are pursuing their own lesson plan development though the Wiki environment. These teachers have received special in-service professional advancement credit to count as part of their ongoing recertification process for this work. We have assisted teachers in acquiring their own weather station equipment to join a network of teachers sharing local weather data. Students in the classroom have been excited and motivated to learn basic scientific principles via the NSDL portal. They have tested a number of assignments that utilize the Web site and have provided insight and guidance to help improve the site. After each class and workshop the hit rate on the site nearly doubles. We believe this is a clear sign that the interactive AVC collection attracts students and teachers to pursue their own scientific interests in a positive and productive way. It remains to be seen if this will have an impact on academic performance, career choice and, long range, wider acceptance of scientific thinking skills.


Special thanks go to Lou Conwell, a third grade teacher and our elementary school reviewer, Tim McCollum, a middle school teacher and our middle school reviewer, and Troy Gobble, a high school teacher and high school reviewer. Special thanks also go to Chad Bahrmann and Erik Vernon for their efforts on visualization tools.

This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0086225. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Science Foundation. We appreciate our collaboration with the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program, which helps to make this collection possible.


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