Designing Visual Earth

HANDS ON! Fall 1998 Volume 21, No.2
Copyright © 1998 TERC. All rights reserved. For reprint permission or a print copy of Hands On! contact PeggyKapisovsky,

for the CLASSROOMBy Harold McWilliams

map centered on the Atlantic Ocean appears on the computer screen. Data
about sea currents and surface temperature are geographically
displayed. With a click the screen maps the path of hurricane Bonnie.
One might imagine that the computer is in the hands of a meteorologist,
but these visual displays are appearing at the request of a student.

1994, TERC has been exploring the potential of using Geographic
Information Systems (GIS) and visualization technologies in pre-college
classrooms. As a result of what we have learned about the educational
power of these technologies, TERC is developing Visual Earth, a series
of integrated classroom solutions for a variety of science topics. The
first two titles in the series, “Exploring the Ocean” and “Exploring
Marine Life,” will be published in late 1998. In a multimedia
environment, each title integrates a common set of visualization tools,
a rich set of data related to the topic, and learning activities tied
to curriculum.

The creation of Visual Earth springs from
our research and vision of how technology can be used to extend and
amplify student learning. We are convinced that educational technology
developers should provide students with the same kinds of rich data and
powerful analytical tools available to professional scientists. This
does not mean, however, that we should dump complex data sets and
complicated tools in a teacher’s lap and say, “Here you are, figure it

Design Drivers

The design of Visual Earth is driven by our vision of technology in inquiry-based science education and what we know about student learning.

our research we have identified obstacles to the effective use of
visualization technologies in the classroom. The product design seeks
to overcome these obstacles and address certain “schoolhouse realities.”

A vision for science education

our vision of science education, students work with real data gathered
by themselves and professional scientists. Using computers and
scientific visualizations, they manipulate the data to search for
patterns and relationships. The data and tools inspire students to ask
questions and conduct investigations. They alternate between following
a planned sequence of discoveries and carrying out original
investigations. Technology allows the students to access multimedia
resources that increase their understanding of the topic. By using
images, maps, and graphs, they learn to organize and communicate their
ideas effectively.

How students learn

We know that
learning is an active process and that students learn best when
learning activities engage their emotions as well as their minds. We
also know that students bring to the learning situation different
mental models of the world and that understanding increases when
classroom experiences help students construct their own knowledge.
Students learn through exploring and from “messing around” as well as
from structured instruction. Thoughtfully designed software should
provide ways for students with different modes of learning to construct
their own knowledge.

Obstacles and schoolhouse realities

TERC’s early classroom work with GIS software revealed three major obstacles to its effective use.

  • Existing
    GIS software was difficult for teachers and students to use. The most
    popular and easily available GIS packages had a steep learning curve
    and were not sufficiently intuitive. Teachers and students found that
    after an absence from the software they had to relearn much of the
    software’s functionality.
  • There were few GIS data sets
    available for science classrooms. The data often required considerable
    modification by a GIS specialist before it could be incorporated into
    the available software.
  • Even when data, software, and
    training were available, there was little or no curriculum for middle
    or high school classrooms. Nor were there materials for science
    teachers that helped them use GIS technologies for student learning of
    the content and skills mandated by curricular standards and science

In addition to these obstacles there are also schoolhouse realities that software designers need to acknowledge.

  • Time
    for classroom instruction. Most students have only about three hours
    per week of science education. This makes it very difficult for busy
    teachers to allocate time for students to learn complicated software
    packages and search the Web and other sources for data. If scientific
    data and tools are to be used by the majority of teachers, they must be
    available on a “plug and play” basis.
  • Time for teacher
    learning. Most of today’s classroom teachers were trained before
    computer technology was widely available so the demand for
    technology-related professional development is great. Resources,
    including time, are limited. Our review of the available GIS and
    visualization software convinced us that these technologies require
    more time to learn than the typical classroom teacher is willing to
    invest. Visual Earth has been designed with a clear interface that simplifies access, analysis, and management of scientific data.
  • Time
    for curriculum development. As much as teachers might like to develop
    their own curriculum, most do not have the time or experience to do so.
    Visual Earth includes focused learning activities that teachers
    can easily integrate with standard topics in the most popular earth
    science, biology, and geography textbooks.

1. Students choose overlays of data. The upper image displays sea
surface remperature and currents. The lower image overlays the track of
hurricane Bonnie.

Visual Earth in the ClassroomAt the heart of Visual Earth is a GIS built with Map Objects LT, a library of GIS functionality from Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). The Visual Earth
GIS displays an electronic map composed of overlays of data. Students
can choose the particular information overlays they wish to display
from a large library included on the CD-ROM. A sample of the overlays
is shown in Figure 1. By selecting different combinations of overlays,
students can begin to understand the connections between the
distribution of one variable and another. For example, students can see
how ocean currents and surface temperatures relate to the movement of

Images and Movies

An old saying proclaims that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Visual Earth takes advantage of that adage and uses images and movies in several ways.

provide context for a topic of study, the software can simply present a
visual image of a place or location. We use images of marine animals
and plants in their natural settings. Images of coral reefs and
close-ups of reef fish and anemones reveal more than words alone.

Visual Earth
also uses images and movies to present scientific data. The striking
image in Figure 2, based on satellite measurements of sea surface
temperature, shows the contours of the Gulf Stream better than any
textual description. It also invites the viewer to speculate about why
the water changes temperature as it does and what causes the Gulf
Stream to flow.

Figure 2. The display of sea surface temperatures shows the contours of the Gulf Stream.

3-D visualizations

aspects of the world’s surface, such as the ocean floor, are more
readily understood with a three-dimensional visualization than a
two-dimensional image. Where appropriate, Visual Earth uses
three-dimensional “fly-through” animation to help students
conceptualize and understand complex topographies. This technique makes
it easier to visualize data in three-dimensions as well as stimulate
interest in the subject. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3. A 3-D “fly-through” over the ocean floor.

Visualizing change over time

Some important phenomena change not only over the three dimensions of space, but also over the fourth dimension of time. Visual Earth
employs animations to facilitate the study of time-based change.
Students are able to view earth processes as a movie or as still images
that can be compared. This helps students understand how phenomena such
as the movement of tectonic plates occur over time (See Figure 4.)

Figure 4. Frames from a movie showing the movement of tectonic plates.

Guided discoveries and open-ended investigation

Visual Earth
titles are linked to curriculum. Each title in the series focuses on a
few key topics that are introduced to students by means of a “guided
discovery.” Like a nature trail laid out through a rich and diverse
natural area, a guided discovery provides a carefully planned
introduction to the major features of a domain. Students move through a
guided discovery by clicking on “frame buttons” arranged in a “gallery
bar” near the top of the screen. Each “stop” along the trail is
represented by a frame in the gallery. Clicking on each frame in turn
makes available a new set of multimedia resources‹an image, map
overlays, a movie, or an animation. Accompanying each frame is
instructional text. (See Figure 5.)

The Visual Earth
CD-ROM includes a wealth of data, images, overlays, and other resources
to investigate and lots of ideas for using the resources. The product
combines a reasonable amount of structure with opportunities for
open-ended projects.

Access to a library of multimedia data

Unlike some software that forces you to navigate complex directory structures to access data, Visual Earth
employs a custom-designed method to streamline access to all the
resources on the CD-ROM. Not only can students browse through the data
provided, they can also use a powerful database search to locate
resources by keyword.

Figure 5. Students follow a guided discovery by clicking on “fram buttons” arranged in a “gallery bar.”


scientists study the earth by analyzing data gathered from satellites.
In order to visualize and comprehend the overwhelming volume of data,
they use powerful software that processes the data and represents it as
colored images. The public sometimes sees these images on TV, but
students rarely see them in their science classrooms. When they do, the
images are static pictures in a book. Visual Earth provides
dynamic analysis tools, accessible data, and curriculum-linked learning
activities all in one package. Students can manipulate these images and
interact with them to take full advantage of the learning opportunities
they present.

Harold McWilliams directs the Visual Earth project.

further readings on visualization technologies in education see Hands
On! Spring 1997, Volume 20, Number 1. This 24-page publication examines
the curriculum, cognitive, and technology issues related to applying
these technologies to the science classroom.

Visual Earth is being developed with technical assistance from the Intel Corporation.

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