The physics of a dynamic 3D plate tectonics model

Earth’s landforms have been shaped over hundreds of millions of years by the movement and interaction of Earth’s tectonic plates. While geoscientists can correlate the wide variety of landforms to this movement, teaching about it poses significant challenges. It’s hard for students to reason spatially and temporally about such processes.

One of the goals of the GEODE project is to design an interactive, dynamic plate tectonics model. Plate tectonics is a fundamental theory that unifies Earth science. It describes Earth’s surface as consisting of a number of “plates” that pull apart, move towards each other, or move side by side. These interactions are responsible for the formation and distribution of geologic phenomena.

Creating a model to represent the complex Earth system is no simple task. We wrote about the challenges of starting with a 2D version in Modeling Plate Tectonics for Learning, but decided to abandon that approach in favor of a 3D model. While visualizations of Earth’s plates exist, a 3D dynamic, interactive plate tectonics model based on physics that runs on school-based computers did not. Until now.

We have begun work on a new 3D GEODE model. The beta version already simulates the following geological processes:

  • subduction and related volcanic activity
  • continental collision and orogeny
  • forming of a new oceanic crust at divergent boundaries

Play the video to watch GEODE’s new 3D geodynamic model representing interacting plates on a modeled planet.

The plates are modeled as rigid bodies that rotate around the center of a planet. Plates are built from small, hexagonal fields with various geological properties:

  • crust type (oceanic or continental)
  • elevation (which can be changed by volcanic activity or orogeny)
  • geological data describing processes like subduction, volcanic activity, or orogeny

Plates are built from small, hexagonal fields that interact based on a physics engine that updates the forces for each hexagon

Every step of the simulation is based on a physics engine that updates the forces for each hexagon. In addition, the final torque (sum of all torques coming from the hexagonal forces), angular accelerations, and angular velocities are calculated for each plate modeled. As plates interact along the plate boundaries, the model detects either the need to generate new fields (hexagons) where plates move apart—like what happens along mid-ocean rifts—or detects collisions and determines what processes are happening—for example, subduction, mountain building, volcanic activity.

Speech technology in education research. Can you hear me now?

The primary way students and teachers interact in the classroom is through talking. A teacher poses a question, a student answers, followed by discussion, or argument. Back and forth, words are exchanged; ideas are refined and understood.

But unlike words on paper, spoken words disappear as soon as they are expressed. Even if the conversation is recorded, there has been no easy way to analyze each word—let alone the level of collaboration, motivation, and reasoning—outside of laboriously transcribing and coding limited interactions.

What if there were a way to electronically capture, measure, characterize, and understand all the words spoken in the classroom? How would access to that information inform education?

The Concord Consortium and its partners have begun exploring these questions. “Speech technology opens up whole new possibilities for analyzing what’s happening in the classroom,” explains Concord Consortium President and CEO Chad Dorsey. “Speech is the coin of the realm in education. For the most part, the core of teaching and learning has to happen when people are speaking to one another.”

The approaching convergence of speech technology and education has been in view for years. The field may not have reached a total convergence, but recent progress has at least made the impossible seem possible.

To assess the potential for speech technology for education research, the Concord Consortium, in 2015, partnered with leaders in spoken language technology research—SRI International and its Speech Technology and Research Laboratory and the Center for Robust Speech Systems at the University of Texas at Dallas—on a National Science Foundation grant to collate and examine current knowledge about speech recognition and analysis, and encourage collaborations that can launch the area of spoken language technology for education.   

For the past year, the partners have been holding focus groups with education and speech researchers to find out what’s already in place, what their hopes are for the future, and what gaps need to be filled to bridge the two. In January the Concord Consortium and SRI held a webinar, hosted by the Center for Innovative Research in CyberLearning (CIRCL), to share information about the potential for speech technology and education research. They have also published a summary of the field as a CIRCL primer. A paper for an educational research journal is in the works that will provide a broad analysis of speech technology and its use in education. Their hope is that bringing this new field out into the open will create “ah ha” moments that spur new collaborations.

However, the steps needed for a true convergence are many and complex. “There are four or five different stages that involve different kinds of technology that have all been maturing independently over years,” says Dorsey. The speech data has to be captured and turned into an appropriate digital format (no small task), and speech has to be distinguished from sound that is not speech, and one speaker from another. Once all that data has been successfully collected, how do you analyze and make sense of it?

The first step may be getting the education research community to recognize the tremendous unrealized potential of spoken language technologies for collecting word counts and performing keyword analysis, as well as evaluating collaboration, argumentation, teacher questioning, emotions, and social signals. It might also be possible to combine different types of data to create new knowledge. For example, combining data on overlapping speech and speech segments with question detection could yield information on whether a classroom is a student-centered classroom.

Consumer technologies like Siri and Alexa only scratch the surface of what’s currently available for research-quality engineering applications, but they have focused the public’s attention on speech technology. Dorsey is cautiously optimistic about the future and notes, “Once people realize this really is possible, it drives more research and work in the area.”

Speech technology and education has yet to mature into a fully formed interdisciplinary research field, but work has begun.

“Sometimes pushing big ideas forward takes understanding where the field is now and who the players are and the kinds of alliance needed for something to move from one step to the next,” says Dorsey.

The first step may be simply starting to talk.

STEM Resource Finder: Part IV – Student Reports

When your students begin to work through models and activities you have assigned to them, you can track their progress.

  1. Log in to the STEM Resource Finder and click the Home button.
  2. In the left-hand column, click the name of your class, then Assignments.
  3. Click on the drop-down list from all of the activities you’ve assigned to access the one you’re interested in.
  4. Each student’s progress in that activity is displayed in the orange progress bars.
  5. Click the Report button for a detailed summary report. (Reports are not available for some activities.)

Providing Electronic Feedback to Your Students

How do you give feedback to your students on their answers? Many teachers have printed out reports to provide feedback and grades. While you can still print reports, you now have the option to provide scores and feedback electronically.

Next to every question is a Provide Feedback button. Clicking this button will enable you to give either written feedback or a score to your students on questions of your choosing.

Your students will see your comments the next time they log in to their accounts. They can then use your feedback to improve their responses.

Comparing Student Responses

The report allows you to compare and project student responses. Scroll down to a question that you’d like to share with your class. After clicking Show responses, the question report will expand, displaying student responses below the question. Select the answers that you would like to compare and/or project. Click the Compare/project button.

This feature can be useful to show a range of answers to spur class discussion. Share model snapshots, multiple-choice selections, and open-response answers. Lead students in a discussion to try to figure out how the variables were tweaked in the model to result in the outcomes shared by snapshots. Help students to critique responses to learn about what makes a great scientific explanation.

And best of all, you can hide the students’ names from the projected view! Keeping it anonymous helps to keep the discussion about the content, not about the individual/group.

Additional information is available in the User Guide.

How will you use these features in your classroom? What other features would you want? Questions? Please share.

STEM Resource Finder: Part III – How to Use Models in Your Classroom

There are over 100 standalone models available in our STEM Resource Finder, which you can assign to your students.

Consider the following ways you might use them in your classroom.

  • Project a model for the whole class to see. Explore data and phenomena. For instance:
    • Look at the patterns of earthquakes and volcano locations in the Seismic Explorer model. Why do you think earthquakes happen where they do?
    • Look at the difference in heat transfer between well and poorly insulated buildings in the Well and Poorly Insulated Houses model. What makes for a well-insulated building?
    • Have the students make predictions of what will happen when a variable changes.
      • What will happen to the level of water vapor in the atmosphere when you reduce the level of human emissions in the Climate Change model?
      • How do you expect tillage to affect the amount of topsoil in the Land Management model?
      • How does molecular mass affect diffusion speed? Use the Diffusion and Molecular Mass model to find out!

Screenshot of Diffusion and Molecular Mass model.

  • Challenge your students to create an outcome in small group work. For example, have your students simulate a balloon’s flight from ground level to high altitude with our What is Pressure? model. Where should they remove atoms to simulate the balloon’s ascent?
  • Embed the link to a model (use the model’s Share feature!) in a shared Google Doc along with a question or two for review, enrichment, or homework.

These are just a few examples of what you can do with our scores of models. How do you use our models in your classroom? Share your ideas here. And let us know if you have any questions.

STEM Resource Finder: Part II – Find and Assign Resources for Your Students

Once you’ve registered as a teacher and created a class, you can assign resources to your students.

Go to the STEM Resource Finder, and use the filters to search by subject area, resource type, or grade level. You can also search our Collections for sets of resources created by our various research projects. Each collection has specific learning goals within the context of a larger subject area.

Tip: If you find a resource that you’re interested in, but aren’t yet ready to fully explore it on your own or assign it to your class, click the star icon on the resource card to save it to your Favorites. You can go back to your Favorites on your home page at any time.

Assign Resources to Your Class

When you find a sequence, activity, or model to assign to your class, click the resource card to open the resource detail view, then click the Assign to a Class button. If you’ve created more than one class, select the class(es) to which you want to assign the resource.

Note: You must be logged in as a teacher to see the Assign to a Class button.

Student Registration

Students can register themselves or you can manually register them. Follow these instructions to have students register themselves.

Note: If you or your students have a Google or Schoology account, you can register or sign in with either of those accounts.

  1. Ask students to Register at the STEM Resource Finder.
  2. Have students complete the form and choose a password. On the next screen, they should select the Student radio button.
  3. Provide students with the unique Class Word for your class.
  4. Have them click Sign Up!
  5. The STEM Resource Finder will assign the student a username consisting of their first initial followed by their last name. (Note: A number is appended if there is more than one student with the same first initial and last name in the system.)
  6. Students will receive a success message once they have completed all of the required fields. Have your students write down their username and password. If they forget their username and/or password, you can use the class roster to see their username and reset their password, if necessary.
  7. Students can then log in to the STEM Resource Finder by clicking Log In! in the pop-up window or using the Log In button on the STEM Resource Finder homepage.

Note: You and your students can use our free resources from the STEM Resource Finder without logging in. Find a resource you love and share the preview URL!

Additional information is available in the User Guide.

Questions? Let us know.

Part II: Students Learn about Water . . .  and Take Action

In Part I you learned what a watershed is and its role in protecting a community from flooding. Carolyn Staudt has led NSF-funded projects that teach middle and high school students how to gather data about their water resources. She feels strongly that the science and engineering skills students learn in the process are essential.

“Elementary through secondary students need to be able to evaluate questions such as: How serious is the water challenge? In what ways do human actions affect water systems? How do we measure water quality?” Staudt wrote in the Spring 2016 @Concord newsletter. Studying water resources is also a good vehicle for learning to visualize and analyze data, make hypotheses, use both hands-on and digital instrumentation, and solve problems.

Staudt recognized water as a critical issue in 1998 after a trip to Sierra Leone, where access to clean water was a problem. “I was at UNESCO in Paris and they asked what I thought the most important resource was.” While everyone else was talking about oil and gas, she said water. “Water is shared—there are people upstream and downstream. What you do with your local watershed impacts everyone,” she says. “But nobody knows about their own watershed.”

She has developed NSF-funded projects for middle and high school students that address water issues using hands-on, real-world water quality science and engineering activities. In one project, students from California, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts learned to collect data about their own watershed using a simple water testing kit developed by the Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN). They shared their data using iSENSE, a web platform designed for students to visualize and exchange scientific data.  

Model My Watershed models human impacts on a watershed.

On another project, she worked with the Stroud Water Research Center in Pennsylvania, and schools in Pennsylvania, Iowa, California, Kansas, and Virginia, to develop a Watershed Tracker app for collecting data and a Model My Watershed app that uses real land use and soil data to analyze the environmental impact of various conservation and development scenarios, such as increasing the number of trees or replacing soil with black top, on a local watershed. Model My Watershed won a Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence, and became part of a larger WikiWatershed developed by Stroud.

Staudt and her project partners also developed a dozen video interviews with science and engineering professionals discussing their professions, so students could learn about careers in environmental conservation and engineering. A three-minute video about the project won an NSF Video Showcase Award.

 

The first time Staudt viewed how a large land cover database could be used to digitally visualize a watershed, “It was like SimCity on steroids,” she says. “You could see the result of conservation practices. With 100% forest cover there was almost no runoff. We wanted to let kids see what would happen if they made changes.”

Kids took notice and took action. “Fifth grade students started turning up at local zoning commissions and school board meetings,” says Staudt. With real data in hand, they demonstrated why a parking lot shouldn’t be built on a field.

“Often what you teach in school stays in school,” Staudt says. “We need more environmentally prepared citizens.”

If you have students who are using environmental data to influence their school or town, or they have higher aspirations to statewide or national impact, share your experiences. What data did students collect and how did they use it? Leave a comment here, or tweet @concorddotorg

For more information:

Water SCIENCE Teaching Environmental Sustainability: Model My Watershed USGS: Water

Part I: What is a watershed?

Houston’s downtown flooded after Hurricane Harvey. Florida neighborhoods have struggled with murky standing water after Hurricane Irma. Catastrophe can overwhelm any system, but why doesn’t the ground just absorb the extra water?

In some cases, the answer is a damaged watershed, a concept most people don’t understand, even though we all live in one.

A watershed is the land area where all rain runs downhill to a certain point.

Simply put, a watershed is “all the land area where the rain runs downhill to a certain point,” explains Carolyn Staudt, who leads NSF-funded science projects at the Concord Consortium on land use and its effects on water resources.

Credit: Tony Webster original. CC BY-NC 2.0

A watershed could be described as a naturally occurring traffic cop, efficiently directing water that’s converging from all around to a common location, maybe a lake or the ocean. The water might also be funneled into a deep underground aquifer or be soaked up by trees.

But when the watershed is damaged, gridlock results, water backs up, and flooding occurs.

A wetland or a forest is a good traffic cop. A parking lot or a housing development is not. Once rain hits a paved surface, it has nowhere to go because it can’t be absorbed. Standing water on a sidewalk or a highway is trapped.

Credit: Addison Berry original. CC BY-NC 2.0

Explains Staudt, “Cities have been paving their wetlands,” the very places that naturally absorb water in a flood—or a hurricane. Even a small amount of rain can become a drainage problem where there’s widespread development of wetlands and prairies, which has been the case in Houston,  for example.  

Why is the connection between land use and water resources important to education?

Read “Part II: Students Learn about Water” to answer that question and find out how some students used the information they learned.  

New website design offers view into our focus areas and free resources for teaching and learning STEM

We’re thrilled to announce our new website, designed in collaboration with the team at Blenderbox. They understood us from the very beginning, describing in their first creative abstract a vision for a “forward-looking, accessible, and good weird” website.

We think they did a great job creating a website that reflects our quirky and creative nature, and we’re pleased to be able to invite you to explore our work and use our free STEM digital resources. Read on to see some of the highlights!

The new home page now clearly highlights main focus areas of our work. As the world of educational technology changes, we’re extending our pioneering work in the field of probeware and other tools for inquiry and continuing to develop award-winning STEM models and simulations. We’re also taking the lead in new areas, including data science education, analytics and feedback, and engineering and science connections. Peek into our innovation lab to see the the cutting-edge new tools and technologies we’re exploring and creating for tomorrow’s learners.

You can find the many research and development projects we’re involved in through featured links on the home page. Or find all current projects under Research Projects (under Our Work in the main navigation), where you can search by grade, subject, or focus area.

And, of course, these projects have developed hundreds of resources for STEM learning over the years, all of which we invite you to use for free and share widely. Now you’ll find them all in our updated STEM Resource Finder (previously called the Learn Portal) at learn.concord.org! There, you can search for resources, create classes, assign activities, and track student progress with reports. All in one place. All for free.

To access the STEM Resource Finder, simply follow the link to “explore our free STEM resources” in the gray umbrella bar at the top of any concord.org page, or find the STEM Resource Finder link under Resources in the main navigation menu.

Take a look today—we invite you to explore our website, learn about our work, and use our free STEM resources.

If you have any questions or are looking for particular information on our site, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Leave a comment here or email hello@concord.org. We look forward to hearing from you.

Deciphering a solar array surprise with Energy3D

Fig. 1: An Energy3D model of the SAS solar farm
Fig. 2: Daily production data (Credit: Xan Gregg)
SAS, a software company based in Cary, NC, is powered by a solar farm consisting of solar panel arrays driven by horizontal single-axis trackers (HSAT) with the axis fixed in the north-south direction and the panels rotating from east to west to follow the sun during the day. Figure 1 shows an Energy3D model of the solar farm. Xan Gregg, JMP Director of Research and Development at SAS, posted some production data from the solar farm that seem so counter-intuitive that he called it a "solar array surprise" (which happens to also acronym to SAS, by the way).

The data are surprising because they show that the outputs of solar panels driven by HSAT actually dip a bit at noon when the intensity of solar radiation reaches the highest of the day, as shown in Figure 2. The dip is much more pronounced in the winter than in the summer, according to Mr. Gregg (he only posted the data for April, though, which shows a mostly flat top with a small dip in the production curve).

Fig. 3: Energy3D results for four seasons.
Anyone can easily confirm this effect with an Energy3D simulation. Figure 3 shows the results predicted by Energy3D for 1/22, 4/22, 7/22, and 10/22, which reveal a small dip in April, significant dips in January and October, and no dip at all in July. How do we make sense of these results?

Fig. 4: Change of incident sunbeam angle on 1/22 (HSAT).
One of the most important factors that affect the output of solar panels, regardless of whether or not they turn to follow the sun, is the angle of incidence of sunlight (the angle between the direction of the incident solar rays and the normal vector of the solar panel surface). The smaller this angle is, the more energy the solar panel receives (if everything else is the same). If we track the change of the angle of incidence over time for a solar panel rotated by HSAT on January 22, we can see that the angle is actually the smallest in early morning and gradually increases to the maximum at noon (Figure 4). This is opposite to the behavior of the change of the angle of incidence on a horizontally-fixed solar panel, which shows that the angle is the largest in early morning and gradually decreases to the minimum at noon (Figure 5). The behavior shown in Figure 5 is exactly the reason why we feel the solar radiation is the most intense at noon.

Fig. 5: Change of incident sunbeam angle on 1/22 (fixed)
If the incident angle of sunlight is the smallest at 7 am in the morning of January 22, as shown in Figure 4, why is the output of the solar panels at 7 am less than that at 9 am, as shown in Figure 3? This has to do with something called air mass, a convenient term used in solar engineering to represent the distance that sunlight has to travel through the Earth's atmosphere before it reaches a solar panel as a ratio relative to the distance when the sun is exactly vertically upwards (i.e. at the zenith). The larger the air mass is, the longer the distance sunlight has to travel and the more it is absorbed or scattered by air molecules. The air mass coefficient is approximately inversely proportional to the cosine of the zenith angle, meaning that it is largest when the sun just rises from the horizon and the smallest when the sun is at the zenith. Because of the effect of air mass, the energy received by a solar panel will not be the highest at dawn. The exact time of the output peak depends on how the contributions from the incidental angle and the air mass -- among other factors -- are, relatively to one another.

So we can conclude that it is largely the motion of the solar panels driven by HSAT that is responsible for this "surprise." The constraint of the north-south alignment of the solar panel arrays makes it more difficult for them to face the sun, which appears to be shining more from the south at noon in the winter.

If you want to experiment further, you can try to track the changes of the incident angle in different seasons. You should find that the change of angle from morning to noon will not change as much as the day moves to the summer.

This dip effect becomes less and less significant if we move closer and closer to the equator. You can confirm that the effect vanishes in Singapore, which has a latitude of one degree. The lesson learned from this study is that the return of investment in HSAT is better at lower latitudes than at higher latitudes. This is probably why we see solar panel arrays in the north are typically fixed and tilted to face the south.

The analysis in this article should be applicable to parabolic troughs, which follow the sun in a similar way to HSAT.

Exploring hurricane datasets in the classroom

In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey evolved from a series of thunderstorms to one of the first major hurricane landfalls in the United States since early 2005. Right on the heels of Harvey, Hurricane Irma blasted through the Caribbean and onto the U.S. mainland, striking Florida in early September.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which aims to understand and predict changes in weather, provides educational resources and datasets about hurricanes.

The dataset for 2005-2015 is available in our Common Online Data Analysis Platform (CODAP), a free and open-source web-based data analysis tool, geared toward middle and high school students.

Screenshot of NOAA hurricane data embedded in our Common Online Data Analysis Platform.

With all the current catastrophic news about hurricanes, students have lots of questions. Use the data to help them understand the history and characteristics of storms.

  • To investigate the paths that hurricanes generally follow, use the slider to change the year from 2005 to 2015, and watch the data points on the map, which represent the general path of the storms.
  • To determine the storm with the highest wind speed, click the top data point in the wind speed graph, which plots year against highest wind speed. Since data is linked across multiple representations, the data point is highlighted on the graph and in the table, so you can find the name and date of that particular storm (e.g., Wilma, October 15, 2005, with top wind speeds of 160 mph).
  • To learn which year had the most or least number of storms, look at the storms per year graph. Notice an outlier in the data with year 2005, which had 15 storms during that season. (Note: This was the same year as Hurricane Katrina. Select KATRINA in the table and make sure the slider is set to 2005, then see the path of the hurricane graphed on the map.)
  • To see a relationship between wind and pressure, click on the Graph button. Drag the Maximum Wind column header from the table to the vertical (y) axis until the axis turns yellow. Drag the Minimum Pressure to the horizontal (x) axis until the axis turns yellow. (Note: you may need to scroll to the far right of the Case Table to see these columns.) 

Analyzing and interpreting data is one of the key science and engineering practices of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and representing and interpreting data are featured throughout the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for mathematics. Students can use publicly available datasets from storms and other weather events to learn more about the world around them.