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As the world turns: Learning about plate tectonics through on-screen interactions

Created by OEIT's ARTEMiS group, the Plate Tectonics interactive visualization challenges students to interpret a 3-D globe of tectonic data, providing animations of the opening and closing of ocean basins and the splitting of Pangaea.
A screenshot of Visual Earth: Plate Tectonics, which displays data about seafloor age, earthquakes, and volcanoes on a rotating 3-D globe.
A screenshot of Visual Earth: Plate Tectonics, which displays data about seafloor age, earthquakes, and volcanoes on a rotating 3-D globe.
image: Violeta Ivanova

What’s in a game? At their core, games are about solving problems. Players have a goal and try to achieve it. Along the way, they need to figure things out and learn new skills. Seen in this light, games — or interactive visualizations — can be very effective for teaching and learning.

Take plate tectonics, taught in 12.001 Introduction to Geology. The topic has 3-D written all over it; seeing these interactive plates and related data on a maneuverable on-screen globe could really help students learn how the earth moves under their feet.

Enter Violeta Ivanova and her ARTEMiS (ART for Engineering Mathematics & Science) group, part of MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation and Technology (OEIT). The group’s focus is on creating educational visualizations, trying out different tools and methods as they go. Since funding for creating these visualizations is limited, Ivanova looks for workflows that are efficient — and then passes that knowledge along.

Going Tectonic

Ivanova’s group had already produced several Visual Earth animations in collaboration with Professor Herbert Einstein of civil and environmental engineering. Einstein showed these animations to Professor Taylor Perron of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences.

From there, collaboration between Perron, Ivanova, and visual artist Krista Shapton emerged naturally. Since plate tectonics covers a lot of territory, both literally and figuratively, they discussed topics that could “pop” through compelling visuals. Perron suggested an interactive visualization of present-day tectonic data — including seafloor age, earthquakes, and volcanoes. He also thought students could benefit from animations of two fundamental theories: the Wilson Cycle, which describes the opening and closing of ocean basins, and the splitting of the supercontinent Pangaea.

Developing Visual Earth: Plate Tectonics required a raft of skills, from interface and graphic design to animation and coding. ARTEMiS visual artists used Photoshop and Illustrator to recreate maps in the correct projections for 3-D and to add thousands of data points, such as the locations of earthquakes and volcanoes around the world. They modeled the Earth with Maya, a 3-D authoring program. To create interactions and build the game, ARTEMiS programmers used the free version of the Unity3D game engine.

In the Classroom

While Plate Tectonics is an openly available resource, Perron uses it to special effect in class. He shows the animations of the two theories to reinforce the concepts he’s presenting. Plate Tectonics next comes into play during an in-class exercise based on materials developed by Professor Dale Sawyer at Rice University. Perron divides students into groups and tells each group to look at the entire Earth through only one type of data: earthquakes, volcanoes, seafloor age, or topography. Then he remixes the groups, so that each group has an “expert” on each data type.

The new groups are each assigned a specific geographic area and asked to examine tectonic data and determine plate boundaries. This problem-solving assignment helps students firm up their understanding of what happens when plates converge, diverge, or slide past one another. Based on its interpretation of the data, each group then justifies its hypothesis about the boundaries of its assigned tectonic plate.

In the fall of 2012, Ivanova observed students as they did this exercise. They quickly figured out how to use the Plate Tectonics tool to examine different types of data. “They took to it right away,” Ivanova says.

Farther Afield: Pakistan and France

In September, with funding from USAID, Ivanova led a four-day teacher training in Pakistan on how to create visualizations to teach science. Participants included science teachers, professors, and graphic designers.

In these workshops, Ivanova introduced visualization techniques by having participants create a simple game, reusing some of the models from Plate Tectonics. Through in-class training and eight Creating a Game tutorials, participants moved through the whole process, from designing graphics in Photoshop, to storyboarding in Illustrator, to creating objects and interactions in Unity.

Ivanova and Perron have also shared ideas and expertise with colleagues at the University of Lyon 1 in France. There, earth sciences professor Nicolas Coltice has created Geosciences3D modules that complement ARTEMiS’s Visual Earth offerings. Coltice’s 3-D application on continental drift, for example, can be viewed in French or English.

Moving Ahead

With Plate Tectonics completed, the ARTEMiS group has worked with Perron on a second 3-D module, based on the Milankovitch cycles, that shows how changes in the Earth's orbit affect climate. While the group has created new images and models for this visualization, it's reused several of the workflows and scripts from its Plate Tectonics work.

Perron has also noted that a mobile version of Plate Tectonics would be useful for students out in the field. It’s doable, since Unity has a separate toolkit for mobile devices. However, “while the content is the same, you have to put it in a different format,” Ivanova notes. “There’s much less screen space to work with.”

While the mobile app may not be right around the corner, Ivanova does plan to offer her “Creating a Game” workshop and an animation series during IAP — and maybe a presentation on data visualization as well. Check the IAP 2014 website for details or contact her via email.

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