Forum 2/2003

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Nita Fullerton

Will von Dauster
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2/2003 Forum - SOS By Nita Fullerton


Science is the core ingredient that makes national economies and the global civilization run, and it serves as an early warning system. "It alerts us to the perils introduced by our world-altering technologies, especially to the global environment on which our lives depend," according to the late Dr. Carl Sagan, one of the most recognizable names in the recent history of science. With new technologies announced almost daily, it is imperative that the population become scientifically literate to be able to understand issues that affect society and make personal decisions that benefit the well-being of everyone.

Over the last two decades, prominent organizations including teachers and scientists from around the world have collaborated to offer new approaches toward improving science education. New guidelines regarding science education have been published by the National Research Council and science educational associations at federal and state levels.

A current goal in NOAA's Strategic Plan is to "continue to build on core competencies in integrated services and information to contribute to efficient, economical, and environmentally sound decisionmaking." Indeed, NOAA has a long history of using its broad spectrum of science expertise to support environmental literacy programs. For example, with support from FSL, NOAA and other agencies established the GLOBE Program in 1995. GLOBE joins students, educators, and scientists worldwide, via the Internet, in a hands-on cooperative experience to increase scientific understanding locally and globally (see the January 1995 issue of the FSL Forum). FSL's contribution to science just got another boost with the recent unveiling of Science On a SphereTM, created by FSL Director, Dr. A.E. "Sandy" MacDonald. Science on a SphereTM (Figure 1) is a multimedia system that uses high-speed computers, advanced imaging techniques, and strategically placed projectors to create the illusion of a planet, the sun, or moon, as well as simulated undersea phenomena.


Figure 1. Science on a SphereTM staged for an exhibition at the NOAA Science Center in December.

Design and Development

Suspended from a custom-made aluminum structure, a 68-inch, 200-pound white fiberglass sphere serves as a 3-D movie screen (in the round) to display full color animated images from NOAA satellites and other sources of geophysical and astronomical data. The invention was conceived in 1995, but development of the system did not begin until 2001. "I started thinking about this several years ago and did some experiments on the deck of my house using a beach ball," said MacDonald. "I knew that putting NOAA climate, weather, oceanic, and geophysical data on a sphere would be a spectacular tool for explaining NOAA's science to a variety of audiences." Walking into the display area of Science On a SphereTM and listening to Sandy MacDonald talk about science, one is instantly captivated by the subject at hand. In the mind's eye it is not just a fiberglass sphere, but a vast world rotating in vivid color, and you're there for a very intriguing experience.

The Information Age in which we live welcomes technology that encourages exploration and learning through discovery. Rather than providing all the answers, as was done in many traditional educational settings, it is now believed, for example, that "exhibits should be interactive and stimulate the visitor to ask questions," according to a recent article in the Journal of Science Education. Implementation of Science On a SphereTM will offer innovative visualization of complex information in a comprehensive format well suited for use in education, outreach, communication, and scientific analysis. To enhance the educational role of museums, science discovery centers, schools, scientific conferences and NOAA events, Science On a SphereTM provides an engaging way of looking at specific Earth features in its native, spherical format instead of in a distorted flat map representation. As one looks at Earth's, or another planet's, features from the outside in, as with Science On a SphereTM, the mind automatically fills with questions.

The project is a collaborative effort with NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, and National Weather Service. A patent has been filed on behalf of NOAA.

Local Debut

NOAA Science On a SphereTM was ready for test and evaluation as a teaching tool last summer. In preparation for demonstration at schools, Beverly Meier, an eighth-grade teacher at Broomfield Heights Middle School in Broomfield, Colorado, worked at FSL with scientists and other educators to design a series of interactive structured lessons to accompany Science on a SphereTM exhibits. She had previous experience at FSL years ago creating another learning package, "Student Activities in Meteorology," which is still used in schools around the country. New educational reforms emphase "hands-on/minds-on" learning as integral to students' thinking, achievement, and science literacy, a concept practiced by Ms. Meier (Figure 2) for some time. Long before use of the Internet became common, students in her science classes were using a modem to access real-time weather data from NOAA to make forecasts for surrounding towns. Her dedication to improving science education has been recognized, including the 1996 Colorado Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching in Secondary Schools.

Beverly Meier

Figure 2. Science teacher Beverly Meier (right) and FSL Information Specialist Rhonda Lange (left) with Student Intern Brendan Beikmann at FSL.

The lesson plans focus on the Earth's geographic features (topography and bathymetry), latitudes and longitudes, degree of settlement and industrialization, atmospheric water vapor, cloud motion in the Earth's atmosphere, and the limitations of flat maps. Ms. Meier arranged for over 500 students to view the sphere and participate in the lessons that she had prepared. The students entered a semi-darkened room, with no wires showing, in groups of 20 to 30.

The sphere and computer equipment were transported to the school (Figure 3) a couple days before the debut to eliminate any potential software glitches. Fourteen scientific and technical staff from FSL and two representatives of NOAA’s outreach program were involved in setup and lesson presentations. The sphere was suspended from the ceiling struts in the school's science laboratory, four projectors were positioned at 90-degree spacing around the sphere, and a customized software package was used to correctly position the images on the sphere.

FSL staff

Figure 3. FSL staff, including David Himes, Senior Systems Engineer (on ladder), install Science On a SphereTM in the science laboratory at the Broomfield Heights Middle School (near Boulder) for its first evaluation in a school setting.

Data Collection Network

Educators strive to make environmental education programs interdisciplinary and more connected to the other knowledge and skills students are learning. With most of NOAA's research laboratories partici-pating in this project, the datasets currently shown on Science on a SphereTM are quite diverse and cover statewide content standards of study in science, mathematics, and geography, thus involving disciplines across the spectrum.

The students worked on assignments (Figures 4 and 5) related to Science On a SphereTM. Their favorite displays, according to completed surveys, were "3-D Surface of the Earth and Lights of the World," the global views of Mars and the moon, x-ray images of the sun, and the "evolution of the Earth's surface due to plate tectonics over the past 600 million years." Information describing these most popular datasets was taken from a NOAA Magazine article (Website; more details on other datasets shown on Science On a SphereTM are also available at this site.

Students and Lesson with SOS

Figure 4. Students working on a lesson plan related to Science on a SphereTM at Broomfield Heights Middle School. The lesson presenter shown here is Joseph Wakefield, Meteorologist (right), with Beverly Meier, Science Teacher (near the sphere), and David Himes, Systems Engineer (far left).

Students and Lesson with SOS - 2

Figure 5. Students making calculations to answer a question in their lesson plans during a Science on a SphereTM demonstration at Broomfield Heights Middle School.

3-D Surface of the Earth and Lights of the World – This dataset is a composite of NOAA's ETOPO2 bathymetry of the Earth's surface data and NOAA’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program's "Lights of the World" showing nighttime images. Visualization developers Peter Sloss and Chris Elvidge at NESDIS National Geophysical Data Center combined these datasets to show the Earth rotating between day and night. The topography and bathymetry are seen in 3-D with the use of special 3-D glasses. Color shadings show the mountains and valleys, plains, ocean depths/ridges and trenches, continental shelves, and the Earth's crustal plates. The nighttime lights indicate population densities, power consumption, and economic development. Student comments: "I thought it was very amazing because you got to see what the world looked like in broad daylight and when the sun fell and it was all dark." Some students did not know that "satellites orbit the Earth day and night taking pictures."

Mars – This global view is from one of NASA's missions to Mars. The highlight of this dataset is Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system (16 miles high), and Valles Marineris, a canyon 2500 miles long and 4 miles deep. Many students mentioned that they would like to see other planets. One student wrote, "Everything intrigued me and made me wonder about...the ways in which we can make our planet a better place to live."

X-Ray Sun – This dataset originated from NOAA GOES-12 satellite data and was developed by the NOAA Space Environment Center. FSL's Mike Biere developed the visualization for Science On a SphereTM. The x-ray image demonstrates that the sun is highly variable and dynamic, an observation that is not evident in similar images created using white light. The image also reminds us that solar phenomena such as solar flares and corona holes can have serious and costly impacts on technology. The dataset shows the corona, the outer atmosphere of the sun. This outer layer is hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun that is seen in visible light, and is where the sun is most dynamic. These data are used for space weather forecasting. Student response: "I've never seen anything like it...and would like to see different planets and how their features are different from Earth."

Moon – The global view of the moon was derived from one of NASA's Lunar Orbiters in the late 1960s and is available from a NASA Website. The highlight here is the backside of the moon where many more impact craters create a more dramatic moonscape than the side seen from Earth. This image is an excellent educational tool to use for teaching about the moon's synchronous rotation with Earth, how the moon was formed, and much more. Student comments: "I would enjoy seeing more other planets because you don't normally see globes on them"; "It's very interesting and real, and you learn something that you never would have thought about"; and "There are so many things you could use SOSTM for, and not just the Earth."

Plate Tectonics – This animated dataset shows the evolution of the Earth's surface due to plate tectonics over the past 600-million years. Ron Blakely at the Department of Geology at Northern Arizona University created a reconstructed view of the world for every 30 – 40 million years, and ARC Science Simulations in Loveland, Colorado, provided the image morphing between these periods. The original art incorporates paleogeographical information for climate zones, mountains, oceans, island chains and inland seas, in addition to plate positions through time. Such reconstructions are based on evidence including fossils, the magnetic record found in rocks, and glacial deposits. Since this dataset provides a visualization of a phenomenon that is hard to imagine, it is an excellent educational tool. The students think so, too: "It's a fun presentation and you can learn a lot"; "It is very interesting to look at a large globe that can show much information without much effort." Science teacher Beverly Meier says that she still has students stop her in the halls and on the school grounds to ask, "Aren't you the teacher who does Science On a SphereTM?". Another teacher commented, "SOSTM is an awesome learning tool. Being able to look at a large three-dimensional Earth with real satellite images projected on it is almost as good as going out into space to view and study the Earth."

Future datasets that may be displayed on Science On a SphereTM include lightning, atmospheric chemistry, climate classifications, ocean circulation, volcanic activity, radiation, sea ice, vegetation, soil types, and land uses.

Final Remarks

As educators and scientists search for new technologies to enhance the teaching and understanding of science, they may consider Science on a SphereTM. Its ability to stimulate interest and query in science has been evidenced in its dynamic displays of interdisciplinary datasets of the natural world. "We think NOAA Science On a SphereTM will be an invaluable educational tool," says Sandy MacDonald. "It is a unique way to explain complex information using images. It can be used to illustrate geography, weather, climate, space weather and a host of other kinds of data. It's limited only by our imagination."

Note: See the "Briefs" section of this on-line document for information on the debut of NOAA Science on a SphereTM at the NOAA Science Center in Silver Spring, Maryland.

(More information on this topic is available at Nita Fullerton can be reached at

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