A New Wave of Learning

May 2008

NOAA is well known for conducting cutting-edge science. But did you know that NOAA is blazing a new frontier in the amazing virtual world of Second Life? What appears to be an entertaining computer game conveys serious science, bringing to life esoteric research with an engaging virtual experience.

Diver's view of diverse ecosystems.
Credit: NOAA

Diver's view of diverse ecosystems.

Second Life is a 3-D virtual world built and owned entirely by its residents. Created by Linden Lab of San Francisco, the web site population and visitors are growing explosively. Linden Lab claims more than five million international inhabitants and NOAA’s island has had over 5,800 unique visitors representing approximately 4,000 hours since the beginning of the year.

Targeting the next generation of scientists, NOAA’s site teaches visitors, called “avatars,” about our changing planet through “immersive storytelling,” according to Eric Hackathorn, who developed the NOAA islands with Second Life design company Aimee Weber Studios.

NOAA's virtual island map.
Credit: NOAA

NOAA's Virtual Island in Second Life.

“Visitors experience environments they would not otherwise have access to,” says Hackathorn, who works for NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. Colorful 3-D graphics and action-packed animations help participants understand the complex science behind climate, ecosystems, and weather. In this virtual classroom, “students,” can get together from all over the world and ride through the eye of a hurricane, soar through the layers of the atmosphere on a weather balloon, or view underwater creatures from the safety of a NOAA virtual submersible; all while being exposed to the real-life data and research incorporated into the adventures.

Sometimes static, other times interactive, island stops serve the visitor a comprehensive palette of knowledge like never before. For example, at the NOAA real-time weather map, avatars can walk across a map of the U. S. and experience the day’s weather as it changes from region to region. This avatar is experiencing a snowy day in virtual Alaska.

Realtime weather map allows avatars to experience the current weather.
Credit: NOAA

Realtime weather map allows avatars to experience the current weather.

In NOAA’s virtual world, melting glaciers and rising sea levels promote potential interactive discussion on climate change. Other locations raise awareness about natural hazards such as tsunamis, hurricanes, wild fires, and oil spills. Effects of the changing environment are vividly portrayed by stops such as the one that informs the visitor about harmful algal blooms.

NOAA is acquiring additional real estate for future development to continue the promotion of NOAA products and services. This property is located in SciLands, a virtual continent and user community within Second Life, devoted exclusively to science and technology. NOAA, as one of the first government-sponsored, Earth-science islands, was key to establishing the continent in collaboration with universities, museums, and other government agencies such as NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and National Library of Medicine. There are now more than 25 science and technology-related organizations participating in SciLands. Its members hold regular meetings in Second Life where they share ideas, help each other, and plan future projects.

Virtual harmful algal bloom.
Credit: NOAA

A virtual harmful algal bloom educates visitors about real hazards.

Visit Scilands for a free account to hop onboard a NOAA balloon, aircraft, or sea vessel, or just walk, fly, or swim through our virtual classroom to unearth new facts about our planet — the one and only NOAA strives to protect and preserve.

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