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Science: New App Brings the World’s Changing Forests into the Classroom

To make data about changes to global forests accessible to a younger audience, Science in the Classroom has collaborated with Google Earth Engine to release a new web application, Global Forest Change Explorer, which launches today.

Through this interactive tool, which is based on a 2013 Science paper that used satellite images of Earth's surface to provide detailed views of forest loss and gain, high school and undergraduate students can analyze forest change trends by country and dive deeper into the underlying causes of these changes, ultimately gaining a better sense of the threats to forests — and how to manage them.

The interactive tool helps students investigate the causes of deforestation in hotspots around the world. | Science/ AAAS

According to University of Maryland's Matthew Hansen, lead author of the underlying Science study, "The match of our expertise in land cover mapping and monitoring with the Google Earth Engine team's expertise in cloud-based image processing and computing was perfect. Teaming up, we were able to advance land monitoring to scales previously not feasible."

"This app reveals the power of data visualization when it comes to understanding science," said Emily Henderson, program manager for Google Earth Outreach. "Seeing is believing, which leads to understanding. It makes people care about issues, including global ones."

Henderson, who will share this tool with students, said she was excited to be a part of bringing remote satellite sensing to users in a way that's not overwhelming. Google Earth Engine had never built tools for high school students, she explained, so the partnership with Science in the Classroom was unique.

"Partnering with Google to provide student users with data from one of our annotated papers really adds a layer of inquiry to our resources," said Melissa McCartney, project director for Science in the Classroom. "Now, instead of just reading about the data, the students can use the app to explore and work with the data."

Science in the Classroom launched in October 2013 with support from the National Science Foundation. Today, it continues to help students across the country better understand core science concepts through a freely available site that features specially developed learning exercises and Science research articles annotated by student volunteers.

The student volunteer in this case was Hilary Barker, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is studying various aspects of forest ecology and global change, topics relevant to Hansen's paper, "High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change."

Barker said that one of the aspects of the paper she worked to make more accessible for students was the linkage between forest change dynamics and policy.

"The paper cites several examples of countries implementing various policies to protect forests, yet young students may not be up to date on these policies and their potential effects. Thus, with the annotations, I tried to explain these policies, including by providing links to online news sources that covered their effects and potential shortcomings."

"This app reveals the power of data visualization when it comes to understanding science. Seeing is believing, which leads to understanding. It makes people care about issues, including global ones."

Emily Henderson, Google Earth Outreach

She sees the annotation work being most valuable by providing "scaffolding" for students, so that they can better understand and evaluate scientific publications. "No one really taught me how to effectively read a science paper," she said. "Thus, I had to struggle through these challenging manuscripts on my own and I think that this is a fairly common experience for students."

That lack of support is beginning to change though, Barker said, through leadership from programs like Science in the Classroom.

Barker said that she thinks the Global Forest Change Explorer app will help simulate the research experience for the students. "In essence, students will be able to put themselves in the shoes of the researcher and see and evaluate the forest data for themselves."

Google Earth Engine's design will allow students to go from a global-scale view of forest cover down to an individual, 30-meter pixel view.

"Compared to black and white text with a few static graphics, the visualization is orders of magnitude greater in its ability to facilitate the communication of our research," said Hansen.

He hopes this app will help students grasp the power of satellites to track global changes.

"We live in a dynamic world where the pressures of population and economic growth increasingly impact natural systems, outcomes of which are observable in satellite images," he said. "As a result, the sustainability of our environment in regulating climate, harboring biodiversity, providing clean water, and other ecosystem services is increasingly compromised. After interacting with our data, I hope students want to learn more about and become actively engaged with the increasingly important topic of global environmental change."

[Credit for associated teaser image: Flickr/ Internet Archive Book Images]


Meagan Phelan

Communications Director, Science Family of Journals

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