Teaching about energy in a virtual, online world

Submitted by Windy Schor

2008-07-31 16:57:20

You may have heard of Second Life (SL) during the National Public Radio show Talk of the Nation Science Friday. There's even a one in a hundred chance that you already visit this "virtual world."
In March 2008, real-life (RL, that's our adjective for things outside Second Life) Shawn Reeves signed up for a free account as "Solar Sierra," after hearing about it dozens of times on Science Friday.
Solar started with a week of open-minded exploration. He was intrigued by the fact that you could make money there and trade that money for US $$. But after a few visits he realized that the quick pennies were just that--pennies. Solar began to wonder about the possibilities for educators and EnergyTeachers.org. It seemed worthwhile to investigate because there were millions of users, and thousands of teachers and scientists, using the platform.
There are two overarching methods of grouping people by interests/activities in SL: Groups and geography. Solar started a group called EnergyTeachersOrganization which is populated by users who are interested in energy education. Also, Solar keeps a kiosk displaying solar cookers at a place called Etopia Island, which is visited by people touring Etopia's models for sustainable living. Group members share announcements for meetings, chat in instant messages on topics of interest, organize meetings, and sometimes jointly own land and/or objects. In short, groups are a way to communicate with each other, and thematic places are a place to meet other people with similar interests.

In April Solar gave two presentations at Etopia about solar cooking. Only a few people attended; some attendees were educators, but none classroom teachers. He learned that teenagers are not allowed on the same grid as adults, but they are offered a "Teen Grid" where teachers are sometimes invited to give presentations. Solar is asking experts how we can get our educational devices to be used there.
Dynamic solar cookers that track the sun's motion can be modeled because there is a virtual sun that moves across the sky (in Second Life, the world is flat and not heliocentric). So far Solar has built a typical solar oven, a box-reflector cooker, a cylindrical parabolic reflector, and a dish-parabolic reflector.
I started in April, immediately thinking about how to teach about wind. Fortunately, there is wind as well as sun in SL. In fact, the wind in this 3-D world is computed constantly by the servers using a model of computational fluid dynamics, in a 2-D grid of 1-square-meter chunks. Each simulation is 256x256 meters, and wind in each square meter is dependent on the wind in adjacent chunks. The wind also is forced away from the sun, and if a sim is abutting another sim, wind data is traded from one to the next as a boundary condition. Because of limits on computing power, the model is two-dimensional. That means that the wind at point 212,47,38 (x,y,z coordinate system is used) is exactly the same as the wind at 212,47,189. Also, the wind recognizes the ground, but not objects placed on the ground or in the air. That means that wind howls right through buildings.
I started my work with a wind sock, something other people had built before in SL, but I added new features. SL allows us to build flexible objects and to build objects with scripts that allow them to respond to their environment. The sock is somewhat flexible hanging and moving in the wind. The post that holds the sock includes a script that turns the whole object into the wind.
Next I made a cup-anemometer that spins faster when the wind in its location is blowing faster. Both the sock and the anemometer have a floating text above them that tells the wind speed and direction every second.
Does a tree fall (let alone make a sound) in a forest if there's no one around? There's only one way to find out, and that is through remote sensing. It was quite a bit more difficult than the few lines of code necessary to show an anemometer spinning in the wind, but after a couple weeks I was able to produce a system allowing for data-logging of the anemometry. Essentially, the anemometer sends its data to a web page at EnergyTeachers.org, which takes the data into a database (MySQL). This allows for hundreds of thousands of data points to be collected. Another web page shows the latest data from each placed anemometer and its location and owner. From there one can save the data or see it statistically represented in a wind rose, a multi-dimensional graph in polar coordinates that shows how often the wind blows how fast in each direction. One can use the statistics about speed to determine the capacity factor of a turbine placed there given the "power curve" of the turbine.
In the link below, please replace "antispamcheck" with "energyteachers.org" to see the page. Loading the page is resource-intensive, so we don't want robots to visit it.
The system described above could be very easily tweaked to manage RL wind data from student anemometers, such as those from Inspeed:
E-mail me if you want to try it out for your classroom.
Back in Second Life, I created a map of Etopia that shows where there are anemometers and what their most recent readings are. The map gets this data from the MySQL database. SL could be used in this way to map RL wind data...There is a map of US weather at an area in SL managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
NOAA's work is part of a larger scientific and educational community housed at SL's SciLands:

Because I had made these tools to help show and explain wind's dynamics, I started giving presentations about wind in May, and was excited to have many more participants than Solar's April talks. Many people interested in sailing and parachuting came to the talks.
Both Solar and I are giving talks again this summer, as we plan to do at least once every three months. In fact, thanks to ideas generated at a talk, I have successfully built a map of wind in a region that doesn't depend on the internet database, bringing the map much closer to real-time and allowing for many more anemometers to be placed without overflowing resources.
I am also developing realistic models of other types of anemometers, including a floating ball anemometer and an ultrasonic anemometer.
You can see both educational and recreational activities Solar and I have either created or enjoyed during our tenure in SL in a photo gallery:
You can join the experiment either in Second Life by joining the EnergyTeachersOrganization group, or in real life by using our bulletin board:

Has reading this article been useful? Please use our forum for any comments: energyteachers.org/forum