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Flow of Data Through Forest Service's Online WaterViz Tool Helped by NSF Grant

WaterViz DURHAM, NH, August 19, 2015 - Even if you are nowhere near ice-cold Hubbard Brook in the rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire, you can tune into the water cycle with Waterviz, an online tool that creates digital art and plays a live forest symphony generated from environmental sensors placed in a mountain valley.

Waterviz – a  collaboration of USDA Forest Service, NH EPSCoR, Northeast Climate Science Center, Plymouth State University, University of New Hampshire’s Earth Systems Research Center, Ohio State University, and Simosol OY – is about to become an even stronger science and education tool with help from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

In addition to further developing Waterviz at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest as a teaching tool for middle- and high-school science students, the NSF’s 2-year, $300,000 “Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER)” will also support the creation of a Waterviz for the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River, Ore. By presenting data in alternative formats, designers hope Waterviz will increase understanding of the concepts behind science and data literacy. Its usefulness in education settings will also extend to exhibitions at science centers and other forums allowing people anywhere in the world to intuit the water dynamics of this small, upland forested watershed.

“Science education and literacy are a vital part of preparing the next generation of leaders,” said Michael T. Rains, Director of the Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory. “We are so honored that the National Science Foundation recognized the potential of Waterviz as a science education tool, and we are so proud to work with our many partners to continue to hone and improve Waterviz.”

Waterviz for Hubbard Brook was created by a team that includes Lindsey Rustad, a team leader and research ecologist with the Northern Research Station who is based at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, along with a team of scientists, visual information specialists, artist Xavier Cortada, musician and sonification specialist Marty Quinn, and educators. Design of Waterviz drew on knowledge and creativity from many disciplines such as forest ecology, hydrology, computer science, art, and music. A video on the Waterviz project is available at: http://waterviz.org/project.shtml

One of the strengths of Waterviz is that it makes near real time data accessible to students who might not otherwise be engaged by forests or data. “We believe that Waterviz will engage a broader community of learners,” Rustad said. “Many students learn better visually, acoustically or even kinetically. Those students may not connect with a numeric presentation of water science. This tool makes data accessible to them as well as to those with special learning needs and to the general public.”

The data behind the symphony and visualization comes from environmental sensors embedded in the brook and surrounding forest that monitor major components of the water cycle and gather more than 90,000 data points a day. These measurements drive a computer model that calculates components of the forest’s water cycle. Instantly, these inputs manifest fluidly as flash animation, music, and traditional science spreadsheets, tables and graphs. Waterviz will allow users to listen in on weather events from the last 5 years, including Tropical Storm Irene.

“This is a new medium for educators and it’s creating online digital art in real time,” according to Rustad.  “It’s our hope that this tool will help connect kids and adults with our forests, will nurture and inspire creative thinking skills, and will foster new ways to imagine our connections with our forests and our planet.”

For educators, Waterviz makes the invisible visible. “Interacting with science data through visual and auditory means can transform a young person’s understanding of the content,” said Debra Sue Lorenzen, director of education for City Parks Foundation in New York City “City Parks Foundation is honored to help support the development and piloting of Waterviz curriculum for early adolescents as part of our afterschool and summer programs.”

The U.S. Forest Service is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a mission of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The mission of the Forest Service's Northern Research Station is to improve people’s lives and help sustain the natural resources in the Northeast and Midwest through leading-edge science and effective information delivery.

The U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live. For more information, visit www.fs.usda.gov/.

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