Friday, December 14, 2012

Learning Science the SOS Way: Science On a Sphere Celebrates 10 years

Seattle's Pacific Science brings the Eye of Sauron to life on Science on a Sphere to celebrate the opening of "The Hobbit" in IMAX.  Courtesy Pacific Science Center.
By Sara Summers, NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory

“Science On a Sphere® was amazing. I can’t believe I got to see real clouds, hurricanes, airplanes, tsunamis, Mars and Facebook friends all in one stop!”
—Paul, 5th grader from Colorado

click to expand imageYoung students getting a geography lesson at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island (Credit: North Carolina Aquarium)Young students getting a geography lesson at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island (Credit: North Carolina Aquarium)
One of the major challenges facing earth scientists is how to make their research interesting, understandable and memorable to people of all ages. Science On a Sphere® (SOS) is an exhibit that uses video projectors to shine images of the earth onto a giant globe. Scientists can choose to show different types of movies on the globe, displaying weather patterns, hurricanes, and even the shift of the continents. Instead of looking at a flat surface, viewers can see these changes as they actually appear on Earth. Science on a Sphere® gives visitors a chance to walk around the world to observe for themselves the changes on our planet.
More than 90 SOSs are installed in science centers, museums, visitor centers, zoos, aquariums, laboratories, and institutions around the world. Interest continues to grow steadily both from the United States and international communities — the number of visitors to SOS locations reaches 24.5 million viewers annually.
An invention for all ages
Science On a Sphere was invented by Dr. Alexander E. (Sandy) MacDonald in NOAA Research.. Dr. MacDonald came up with the idea for SOS as a data visualization tool in 1995 in his garage at home, experimenting with the family beach ball and a home movie projector.
System designer David Himes led a creative team of scientists and engineers in the development of the SOS software, hardware and system architecture. SOS debuted at the NOAA Science Center in Silver Spring, MD, in December of 2002, and a patent was awarded to NOAA for SOS in August 2005, with Dr. MacDonald credited as the inventor. In 2006 SOS was featured in TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions 2006 List. The program is managed by Dr. William B. Bendel in the Global Systems Division Technology Outreach Branch.

Blue Marble dataset from NASA's MODIS, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (Credit: NOAA)
How it works
Animated datasets are projected on to a six foot sphere creating a seamless global image, using an external projection system made of four projectors and one Linux computer. The sphere is suspended from the ceiling with invisible wires providing a view of Earth as it would look from outer space. The result is a versatile educational device with over 360 datasets, including 42 real time datasets that show the impact of human activity and natural events on a global scale. In addition, the SOS Program has posted a series ofYouTube SOS videos on the web, including a video of real-time satellite images of Hurricane Sandy as she ravaged the Atlantic Coast in late October. The SOS data catalog also includes an impressive library of 79 animated datasets of our solar system.
click to expand imageCumulative domestic and international SOS installations from 2004-2012 (Credit: NOAA)Cumulative domestic and international SOS installations from 2004-2012 (Credit: NOAA)
SOS News
The 5th SOS Users Collaborative Network Workshop “Science & Storytelling,” recently held in Long Beach, CA, enjoyed record attendance. A range of keynote speakers from across disciplines including a Hollywood director, a writer, a scientist and an artist helped to further reinforce the theme. The workshop was co-hosted by NOAA and the Aquarium of the Pacificwith support from the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation and organized by NOAA Office of Education. Participants were introduced to newly released software designed to improve the display on the globe and to increase audience interaction by adding new features such as zooming, layering and more notes.
SOS will be the center display of the NOAA exhibit at the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting in Austin, TX, January 2013. A portable SOS, available for large-scale events such as this, has put on many miles over the past few years. Heading to the Supercomputing Conference three times, the United Nation Convention of Climate Change in Denmark as the centerpiece for the US exhibit, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) annual conference, the World Expo in Shanghai, the G8 summit, the French Embassy in Washington DC, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) annual meeting, and other large events. A SOS display will be installed in Silver Spring, MD, at NOAA headquarters in 2013.
click to expand image Children around the world learning about science, the SOS way (Credit from left to right: North Carolina Aquarium, NOAA, Orlando Science Center)Children around the world learning about science, the SOS way (Credit from left to right: North Carolina Aquarium, NOAA, Orlando Science Center)

This piece previously appeared on the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research website December 12, 2012