2009 Annual Science Report

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

EPO Activity: MIT EPO Report

Project Progress

The EPO activities of the MIT Team are coordinated and run out of the Biodiversity Informatics Group of the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, MA. This is the same group currently working on the technical implementation of the Encyclopedia of Life project (http://www.eol.org).

The first steps in the EPO activities were to set up a web presence to act in three capacities:

1. A method of communicating the activities of the MIT group with the general public.
2. A method of intra-team communications.
3. A method of distributing webquests for the formal education community, along with associated resources (targeting the middle school level)

The initial website was developed and launched in early 2009 and is now available at http://www.complex-life.org . The website is built using the open-source Drupal content management system (http://www.drupal.org), which makes it fully interoperable with other software being developed in the Biodiversity Informatics Group. In addition, an associated LifeDesk (a website for managing biodiversity information) was set up containing information on Ediacaran biota (http://complex.lifedesks.org).

The initial web presence includes tools and materials for other researchers, which include:

- information about the MIT team – links to publications – lists of references – an online catalog of Ediacaran biota

These materials catalog the information created by the MIT team and provide learning resources for teachers and the general public. The next step is to create activities for educators, leveraging some of these source materials, in the style of webquests. A webquest is a complete lesson plan for a teacher covering a specific topic, including source material, resources, evaluation activities/criteria and related material. We will also need to reshape some of these resources and generate new resources appropriate to the middle school audience and will be doing this in early 2010 on the next field excursion to Australia. These new resources will be in the forms of a Virtual Field Trip, video term definitions, and photographs.

During this year, the following EPO activities were undertaken by the group:

- The MIT Team recently participated in a field excursion to Newfoundland for their group meeting, and also to look at fossils of the earliest known complex life on Earth (the Ediacaran biota). A brief description of the field excursion is available on the group website: http://www.complex-life.org/mistaken_point_2009 .

- During the field excursion, discussions were had with the entire MIT team about EPO activities and areas of focus. Three main audiences for EPO activities were identified: (1) other researchers in the field, (2) middle school students and educators, and (3) the general public. Because the needs of the three audiences are likely to be very different, the website should offer pathways for each, with different content or activities at the end of each pathway. Some of the resources for teachers and the general public (such as photographs, descriptions, and diagrams) will come from primary source materials generated by the researchers.

- Peter Mangiafico and Roger Summons prepared a blog journal article for the public describing the recent field excursion, complete with photos and photosynths (see next item). The blog entry is available at http://www.complex-life.org/mistaken_point_journal_2009 . The blog entry was passed to the MBL and NASA NAI for linking and publicity purposes.

- Peter Mangiafico explored the publicly available Photosynth software from Microsoft (http://www.photosynth.net) to create zoomable and panable images taken on the field excursion in Newfoundland. Two of these photosynths are found on the journal page referenced above (http://www.complex-life.org/mistaken_point_journal_2009). Photosynth is a technology similar to Gigapan that allows for many photographs to be stitched together in a way that is easily zoomable and panable in a web browser. However, unlike Gigapan, it does not require any special hardware and is done after the fact using freely available software.

- A large amount of video was shot during the field excursion as an exploration for how this technology can be used for future field excursions to create web resources.

- The group website was updated to provide the ability to have private “members only” pages for the team so it can be used for internal collaboration and posting of materials for the team. Peter Mangiafico created instructions for how team members can edit and update their own pages, allowing the website to remain more relevant and current. Members also have the ability to attach materials (such as PDFs) to their pages easily.

- A members-only Flickr group for the MIT team was started after the field excursion to collect media. The photos are viewable by anyone but only members can add new media (http://www.flickr.com/groups/complex_life/). As of October 1, 2009, seven members of the MIT Team have uploaded 419 photos from the recent field excursion. These photos were used for the journal article referenced above and will be used for EPO and other activities in the future.

- David Patterson has set up a LifeDesk system (http://lifedesks.eol.org) to collect information about the Ediacaran biota, which is now available at http://complex.lifedesks.org. We are exploring the cost effectiveness of developing this LifeDesk as a “rogue’s gallery” of species relevant to the study of complex life. This will require authoritative species lists, taxonomies, images, descriptions, distribution data, and so on. Eventually, this information will flow into the main Encyclopedia of Life website.

- Another aspect of our EPO activities, led by Sam Bowring, is a program to teach the science of geochronology to high school students. This program had it’s roots in the NSF funded EARTHTIME project and has grown rapidly. We are currently developing a curriculum and workshop to teach the details of both radioactive decay and isotope dilution as well as the application of dating volcanic ash beds interlayered with fossil bearing rocks to understanding earth history. We are developing modules to show how geochronology can be used to constrain the early evolution of animals as well as the age an duration of global, Snowball, glaciations that introduce uncertainties in geochronology and stratigraphic sequence. The activities may be taught both at MIT and as part of a mobile lab where two to three scientists visit a high school and teach half day modules.

- Lisa Kaltenegger and Dimitar Sasselov participated in TV interviews, the generation of video clips and online teaching material, and acted in an advisory function for K-12 school projects, as well as an advisory function to the public and press via a web interface.

Television interviews:

Lisa Kaltenegger
WJY Baltimore (TV) May 2008
NOVA science now – exoplanets (Discovery Channel) October 08

Dimitar Sasselov
Discovery Channel, “Are We Alone?”, documentary, July 16, 2009;
National Geographic Channel, “Alien Earths”, documentary, Aug. 23, 2009

Online video clips and outreach material

Lisa Kaltenegger
NOVA science now – exoplanets, quizz and video segments on reading spectral fingerprint of exoplanets, October 08

Scientific advisor to school projects (K-12)

Lisa Kaltenegger
NSF project, “Exploring the Frontiers of Science with Online Telescopes”, brings cutting-edge science into the K-12 classroom. Online video segments, models and lecture material on e.g. “Are there other Earth-like planets, and do they harbor life?” are used to teach the basic concepts in classrooms Nov 2008 – Nov 2009

Advisor for the public and press

Lisa Kaltenegger
Science at Stake: webbased Initiative for journalists and general public 2006 – current