3 Reasons to Vote in STEM For All Video Showcase

We’re thrilled to present three videos in the National Science Foundation STEM for All Video Showcase from May 14 to 21! We invite you to view the videos and join the conversation about research projects that are transforming the STEM educational landscape. Please vote for our videos through Facebook, Twitter, or email!



Geniventure is a free online game with an Intelligent Tutoring System that engages students from middle school through higher education in genetics and heredity by saving virtual dragons from extinction. Through scaffolded virtual investigations, students explore the physical traits that result from allele combinations, then zoom into cells and manipulate the proteins that ultimately give rise to those traits.

Watch & Vote


Integrating Computational Thinking and Experimental Science

InSPECT supports the integration of computational thinking (CT) in experimental science with a novel technology-enhanced curriculum, and examines how students engage in CT using these tools for inquiry. InSPECT is designing a series of open-ended high school biology experiments using inexpensive DIY lab instruments developed in partnership with Manylabs, including Dataflow—a digital tool for experimental control and data acquisition using Internet-of-Things sensors.

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Teaching Environmental Sustainability with Model My Watershed

With our collaborators at  and Stroud Water Research Center, we’re developing interdisciplinary, place-based, problem-based, hands-on resources and models aligned to NGSS to promote watershed stewardship, geospatial literacy, and systems thinking. We’re introducing middle and high school students to environmental and geospatial science that engenders critical incidents and encourage students to pursue environmental and geoscience careers.

Watch & Vote

Exploring Hawai’i (and the rest of Earth) with Seismic Explorer

Kilauea, Hawai’i’s youngest and most active volcano, has been continuously erupting since 1983. But it made news again recently with large earthquakes and lava fountains erupting in residential areas.

Have you ever wondered what’s going on with Kilauea? Can scientists predict when and where a volcano will next erupt?

You can use Seismic Explorer to explore the locations of volcanoes and earthquakes in the Hawaiian Islands. In this zoomed-in view from Seismic Explorer, you can see the locations of Hawai’i’s active volcanoes.

Seismic Explorer, zoomed in to show the Hawaiian Islands. Triangles mark the locations of Hawai’i’s five active volcanoes. Triangles are color-coded by most recent eruption date.

Launch Seismic Explorer and click the Play button to show the earthquakes that have occurred in the Hawaiian Islands since January 2018. Using just the earthquake data, can you tell when and where the volcano erupted?

Why is Kilauea erupting? How did the Hawaiian Islands form?

The Hawaiian Islands are the result of a geological hotspot. At hotspots, magma rises to the surface and breaks through Earth’s crust, resulting in volcanoes.

If you choose the ocean basemap map type in Seismic Explorer, you’ll be able to see that the Hawaiian Islands are on one end of a long chain of underwater mountains. (The lighter colors represent higher elevations.)

Seismic Explorer view of the North Pacific Ocean basin, ocean basemap view. Hawai’i is at one end of a long chain of underwater mountains. Use the zoom tools to zoom out to a larger view.

The Hawaiian Islands are the youngest mountains in this chain. The current volcanic activity shows that the Hawaiian Islands are still being formed.

So, why is there a chain of islands instead of one big island? Has the hotspot moved? You can use Seismic Explorer to get some clues to answer this question as well.

Hawai’i is located in the middle of the Pacific Plate, one of Earth’s many tectonic plates. Tectonic plates are composed of the crust (the part of Earth you can see) and the upper part of the mantle. Using the plate boundaries and plate movement data, you can explore the motion of the Pacific Plate.

Seismic Explorer, zoomed out to show the Pacific Ocean. Showing plate boundaries and plate movement. Movement arrows show that the Pacific Plate is moving to the northwest.

The detailed plate movement arrows show that the Pacific Plate has been moving to the northwest. The hotspot has remained stationary, and as the Pacific Plate has moved, the island chain has grown. Older islands in the chain were moved away from the hotspot, and over millions of years, they were eroded so that they’re no longer above sea level.

Even though Seismic Explorer shows only the current activity, you can use the data to make inferences about the past and predictions about the future.

Using data to figure out the past
You may have noticed that there is a bend in the underwater island chain. Can you explain what happened there? How must the Pacific Plate have been moving at that time?

Using data to predict the future
Can you use the plate motion data to predict the location of the next active volcano in this chain?

Using Seismic Explorer to explore other areas on Earth

Geological hotspots are the least common places for volcanoes. Most volcanoes on Earth are the result of convergent plate boundaries, where two plates move towards each other, like the volcanoes of Japan and the Andes Mountains of South America. Some volcanoes form along divergent boundaries, like the volcanoes of Iceland.

You can use Seismic Explorer to explore all of Earth’s volcanoes and earthquakes. Try using the cross section tool to get a 3D underground view of earthquakes.

Seismic Explorer, showing the area of the cross section.

Seismic Explorer, showing a 3D view of the earthquakes under Hawai’i.

How are the patterns of earthquakes different at different types of volcanoes? Compare the Hawaiian volcanoes to volcanoes in the Andes to volcanoes in Iceland. (Spoiler alert – the views are very different!) Along the plate boundaries, make sure to draw your cross section perpendicular to the lines of earthquakes – that way, you’ll be able to see the patterns of earthquakes along each boundary.

If you’re interested in exploring more about plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes, check out the GEODE activities in the STEM Resource Finder. You’ll find links to models, like Seismic Explorer, and classroom activities. You’ll also find links to sign up to be a field test teacher and help us test the latest plate tectonics models and curricula.

The GEODE project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is developing computational models of plate tectonics and associated curricula for the middle and high school level.



Sharing Research Results and Special Poster Session to Commemorate Robert Tinker at AERA 2018

Several researchers and senior scientists from the Concord Consortium traveled to New York City in April for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). A record 17,148 educators and researchers around the world attended AERA 2018, which offered 900 sessions in eight hotels centered in bustling Times Square.

A poster with research from Hee-Sun Lee and Amy Pallant focused on the design of formative science assessments in which a system interprets students’ constructed scientific arguments via natural language processing and scores them automatically using machine learning technologies to provide tailored feedback and facilitate revision and improvement. Paul Horwitz and colleagues described digital learning environments involving collaborative problem-solving, using an evidence-centered design framework.

Carolyn Staudt, together with collaborators from Millersville University of Pennsylvania and Stroud Water Research Center, shared promising results for teaching environmental sustainability using their Model My Watershed software. They found that place-based watershed modeling is an effective tool for increasing students’ understanding of watersheds, encouraging personal environmental action, and serving as a critical incident for watershed engagement.

Angela Kolonich from the CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University and Dan Damelin from the Concord Consortium presented results from the Interactions project, a collaboration between the two institutions. They shared findings from a study pairing an educative, project-based, 3D science curriculum with professional learning of inclusive 3D instruction. Findings indicate that providing teachers with sustained, research-based curricular and instructional supports assists them in making instructional decisions that bridge 3D learning with the unique needs of their students.

Sherry Hsi and Hee-Sun Lee participated in a structured poster session on the theme of knowledge integration in science. The session, chaired by Professor Marcia Linn and joined by colleagues and alumni from the Technology-Enhanced Learning Collaborative and WISE Group at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated multiple examples of how knowledge integration as a curricular design framework builds toward a more coherent understanding of the many ideas students have about science. Discussants Bat-Sheva Eylon and Esther Bagno attended the session from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel to reflect upon the influence the knowledge integration framework has had on the design of learning in middle and high school science instruction, and on the professional development of teachers internationally.

On the final morning of AERA, a special poster session commemorated the Concord Consortium’s founder, Robert Tinker. Posters celebrated his immeasurable impact in educational technology over the past 40 years and highlighted his continued influence on the field. As the international group of 14 presenters provided brief overviews of each poster, the sharing quickly gave way to tributes and personal stories about how Bob had inspired, nurtured, and fueled such a diverse variety of personal research trajectories and programs. (Read more stories and share your own at https://rememberingbob.concord.org)

AERA Special Poster Session Presenters

The posters included examples of probeware, model building, online professional development, mixed-reality applications, video-based data for inquiry, tools for learning about solar energy, geosciences, biology, thermodynamics, and more. As a whole, the session featured crosscutting themes of simulation and modeling, pedagogical content models, innovative assessment, learner analytics, collaborative learning, and inquiry-based laboratories. Chris Hoadley from NYU and Marcia Linn from UC Berkeley closed the session with heartfelt remarks about Bob’s passion for building powerful tools, his knack for initiating productive and collaborative partnerships, and his persistent belief that students were capable of doing real science with authentic tools if given the opportunity to play, be curious, and ask questions.

To continue to honor Bob’s legacy at future AERA conferences, Chad Dorsey and Sherry Hsi announced the Robert F. Tinker Scholarship for emerging scholars during the AERA 2018 Joint SIG Business meeting of the Learning Sciences and Advanced Technologies for Learning. This award will be presented annually to a graduate student or postdoc member of the Learning Sciences and/or Advanced Technologies for Learning SIG to support travel to deliver an accepted AERA poster or presentation. We look forward to this ongoing opportunity to build the field along the themes that were important to Bob: tools for inquiry, learning and collaboration, data explorations, sustainability and the environment, tinkering with models, playful experimentation, online learning, and learning everywhere.

Janice Gobert and Paul Horwitz

Janice Gobert, Rutgers University and Paul Horwitz

Sherry Hsi, Chris Hoadley, and Marcia Linn

Sherry Hsi, chair of the Robert Tinker poster session, with discussants Chris Hoadley and Marcia Linn

AERA Special Poster Session

AERA Special Poster Session

National Teacher Appreciation Day & High-Adventure Science: Preparing students for real-world problems

“Thinking is hard work,” laughs Stephanie Harmon, who teaches physics, Earth science, and physical science at Rockcastle County High School in Kentucky. One of her primary goals is teaching students to think.“So much happens to us on a daily basis that we take for granted as long as everything is going okay,” she says. “What happens when something goes wrong? How do we make sense of that? What do we do about it? Science helps us foster critical thinking and problem-solving capacity . . . But you have to build that capacity in students. Science does that.”

In 2013, when she was looking for some robust Earth science materials, and wasn’t finding any, Stephanie discovered High-Adventure Science (HAS) and became a field-test teacher. “It was a relief,” she says. “There isn’t anything I could do in a traditional fashion that would even begin to mimic the experience that the students have using this.”

Water issues are real in her Kentucky community where there’s a serious problem with algae growth in the city water supply. Her class used the HAS fresh water module to guide collection of samples from a creek that runs through the high school property. “The module fits in with the big picture. It wasn’t just reading a bunch of articles about water quality, or looking to see what the book said. It became real.”

Photo by Amy Wallot/Kentucky Department of Education

Stephanie is consciously preparing students for issues they will face as adults: energy issues, water issues, clean air issues. “It can’t just be a school thing,” she insists. “The purpose of taking science classes is to be scientifically literate. What that means is you understand those common experiences that we all have: if you’re called to jury duty, you know how to make sense of forensic data; if you’re in the doctor’s office and you get a series of lab results, you know how to make sense of that information; when your neighbors detect radon gas in their basement, what does that mean you need to do? Those are the types of things we need to know, and that’s what scientifically literate means to me.”

From 2010-2013 Stephanie worked on the team that reviewed the Kentucky Next Generation Science Standards. In 2014 she won the Kentucky Science Teacher Association’s Outstanding High School Science Teacher award. And since 2016 she has been part of the team that developed a 3D NGSS state science assessment. During the 2018 NSTA national conference in Atlanta, she talked to a packed room about scientific argumentation and modeling using High-Adventure Science. We’re gratified that such an accomplished teacher uses our STEM resources.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Day to Stephanie and all teachers!

* * *

High-Adventure Science addresses big issues in Earth and space science: climate change, fresh water, land management, clean air, and more. It emphasizes the excitement of scientific discovery using the same methods that practicing scientists use so students can see science as a dynamic, evolving process. HAS lessons and interactives are available free online, including some in Spanish. They are also on the National Geographic Education website.

¡El módulo de clima está disponible en español! (The climate module is available in Spanish!)

We’re thrilled to announce that the popular High-Adventure Science (HAS) climate module is now available in Spanish. Many thanks (muchas gracias) to Penny Rowe (University of Santiago of Chile) and Cristián Rizzi (Universidad de San Andrés, Argentina) for taking this on! The Spanish-language version directly parallels the existing English-language version.

Spanish-language version of the HAS climate module

English-language version of the HAS climate module










The HAS climate module poses the question, What is the future of Earth’s climate? This is a question to which climate scientists do not (yet) know the answer; while there is ample evidence that Earth is warming, there is uncertainty about how much the temperature will increase. There is continued active research to learn about all of the factors that affect Earth’s climate and their interactions. And it’s an interesting question, one with an answer that affects everyone on the planet.

These are types of questions that are posed by High-Adventure Science modules – big, interesting, unanswered questions about Earth and environmental science topics, coupled with real-world data and computational models. High-Adventure Science was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation.

While cutting-edge science is interesting, it can be challenging for non-scientists (students and adults alike) to understand. That’s why we scaffolded the data and models. Text and a series of guided questions help learners to figure out how factors such as carbon dioxide and water vapor affect temperature and each other (through positive feedback loops). Students can use the models to run experiments – what might happen if greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 50%, for example?

Model in High-Adventure Science climate module. What might happen to the temperature if greenhouse gas emissions decrease by 50%?


Additional scaffolding comes in the form of uncertainty-infused scientific argumentation items. Climate science, like all science, has uncertainties. Just because some of the scientific understandings are uncertain does not mean that no conclusions can be drawn, however. We don’t shy away from the complexity, but instead help students to consider some of the reasons for uncertainty with the data. For example, the real-world temperature data include error bars. Students are asked to consider the year-to-year variations, as well as the longer, multiyear trends. Additionally, students are asked to consider why the size of the error bars is different across different time periods, including methods of data collection, and how that affects the strength of conclusions that can be reached from the data.

Real-world data embedded in the High-Adventure Science climate module. Average temperature change, compared to 1950-1980 baseline, from 1880 to 2010. NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

In each of the embedded four-part argumentation items, students (1) make claims based on the data, (2) explain their claims in light of that data, (3) rate their level of certainty with their explanations, and (4) explain what affected their certainty levels. Rather than turn students into “climate deniers,” this process has helped students to more deeply learn the underlying science. In our research, students who used the High-Adventure Science climate module improved their abilities to formulate good, data- and evidence-supported scientific arguments, even with an uncertain science.

You can find both the English- and Spanish-language High-Adventure Science climate modules, as well as other High-Adventure Science modules and models, in the STEM Resource Finder at learn.concord.org/has.

High-Adventure Science project makes significant impact

With renewed attention to global environmental challenges, understanding how Earth’s systems work is essential to both thinking about those challenges and finding potential solutions. Teaching about human interactions with Earth systems requires that students apply relevant science concepts to these challenges. For example, students should understand the water cycle when exploring freshwater distribution, the atmospheric greenhouse effect when studying climate change, and nutrient cycling when investigating soil quality and food production. In the High-Adventure Science project, students have the opportunity to explore these and other Earth systems and discover how system components interact to produce emergent behaviors.

One promising way to engage students is to have them consider important unanswered questions that scientists around the world are actively exploring. In High-Adventure Science modules, students learn about the human impact on Earth’s systems. Students explore science that is relevant to their lives and engage in authentic science practices, such as making predictions and considering the variability and uncertainty associated with data and predictions based on the data.

High-Adventure Science, funded through a series of grants from the National Science Foundation, developed a plan for incorporating contemporary science into classrooms. The resulting curricula and dynamic computer models enable students to become thoughtful, scientifically literate citizens.

We developed six online curricular modules for middle and high school Earth and environmental science classes. The modules cover freshwater availability, land resource management, air quality, climate change, energy choices, and the search for exoplanets.

Five design principles guided the development of the modules:

  • Engage students in real-world frontier science
  • Use open-ended questions to frame each module
  • Have students interpret data collected by scientists
  • Immerse students in experimentation with dynamic computer models depicting complex Earth systems
  • Support students’ evidence-based scientific argumentation while considering sources of uncertainty

Our research focused on scientific argumentation with uncertainty and system dynamics thinking. Our analysis of several thousand students showed that students significantly improved their scientific argumentation ability after engaging with High-Adventure Science modules.

As part of the scientific argumentation research, we developed a taxonomy of students’ uncertainty attributions. This taxonomy is the first such attempt to characterize the developmental trajectory of secondary school students’ uncertainty attribution. The taxonomy represents the degree to which students understand the role of uncertainty in science, in particular the strengths and limitations of the evidence used in a scientific argument.

We also studied students’ system dynamics thinking to assess their understanding of complex systems and developed rubrics to categorize students’ written explanations into qualitatively different levels. This framework tracked students’ uses of stocks and flows when they explained causal mechanisms associated with complex systems.

We’re delighted that the six web-based modules are available at the National Geographic Society website as well as through the High-Adventure Science website.

Join the nearly 100,000 users of these research-based modules and bring the excitement of frontier science to your secondary Earth science or environmental science classroom!

14 Chances at NSTA 2018 to Learn about Our Work

Are you attending the 2018 NSTA annual conference in Atlanta March 15-18? We’re leading 10 presentations at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) and the Omni Atlanta Hotel at the CNN Center and one short course at the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel. Something for everyone, from modeling science in kindergarten to data science education. Join us for one or more sessions. We’re giving out free STEM resources for K-14! Schedule is below.

Calling all teachers! We want to talk with you at #NSTA18. Tell us what you like about our STEM resources and what could be improved. Don’t miss this chance to give us a piece of your mind! Please complete this short survey to register your interest in connecting with us. We’ll contact you to arrange a short meeting in Atlanta.

You can also tweet your thoughts to @ConcordDotOrg or email projects@concord.org.

THURSDAY, March 15

8:00-9:00 AM, GWCC, A401
“Sensing Science Through Modeling Matter for Kindergarten Students”
Discover models, probes, and online interactive stories.

12:30-1:00 PM, GWCC, A410
“Argumentation and Modeling in Earth Science Using Free Online Modules”
Free Earth system and environmental science simulations and curricula.

3:00-6:00 PM, Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel, Chastain C
SHORT COURSE SC-1: If You Can Think It, You Can Model It
Use our popular SageModeler for modeling complexity and examining behavior.
You can purchase tickets online for this course.

5:00–6:00 PM, GWCC, A408
“Using Models to Support STEM Learning in Grades K–5: Examples and Insights from NSF’s DRK–12 Program”
Discussion centers on research-based examples of how students can engage in modeling in the elementary grades.

FRIDAY, March 16

8:00 AM, GWCC, A301
“Precipitating Change: Embedding Weather into the Middle School Science Classroom”
Everybody has weather! Make meteorology part of STEM learning.

8:00 AM, GWCC, A402
“Using Models to Support STEM Learning in Grades 6-12: Examples and Insights from NSF DRK-12 Program”
What does the research say about modeling practice?

9:30 AM, GWCC, C213
“Powerful Free Simulations for 3-D NGSS Teaching”
Free tips and resources for molecular simulations and curricula.

9:30 AM, GWCC, A301
“Teaching Environmental Sustainability Using a Free Place-Based Watershed Model”
Explore your local watershed with a web-based application.

2:00 PM, GWCC, B102
“NGSS@NSTA Forum Session: Interactions – A Free 3-D Science Curriculum for 9th Grade Physical Science
Atoms and molecules are the foundation to explaining scientific and everyday phenomena.

4:00 PM, Dantanna’s Downtown, One CNN Center, Suite 269
Join our informal Data Science Education Meetup. Get a bite to eat and talk with others about how to empower students with data science skills. And don’t miss tomorrow’s 9:30 AM presentation on data science and CODAP. RSVP dset@concord.org

5:00–6:00 PM, GWCC A301
“Model My Watershed: Using Real Data to Make Watershed Decisions”
Learn about an exciting free online modeling application that gives anyone the ability to use STEM practices to explore their local watershed.

SATURDAY, March 17

9:30 AM, Omni Atlanta Hotel at the CNN Center, Dogwood A
“Introducing Students to Data Science with Simulations & Interactive Graphing”
No coding required! Learn about CODAP (Common Online Data Analysis Platform), a free online tool for data analysis.

12:30 PM, GWCC, A313
“Systems Thinking, Modeling and Climate Change”
Explore a free, open-source modeling tool for climate change. Free e-book, too!

2:00 PM, GWCC, C206
“Liven Up Your Labs with Free 3-D Learning Tools and Resources”
Learn science by doing science. Adapt your labs using new tools.

Uncertainty: Real-world examples

When you live in New England in the winter, you pay attention to the forecast. Large snowstorms can make travel near impossible. Heavy snow and blowing winds can cause coastal flooding, power outages, and roof collapses.

The National Weather Service (NWS) exists to “provide weather, water, and climate data, forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy.” They’re my favorite source for weather forecasts. And yesterday morning (February 26), they gave me one more reason to appreciate them.

You see, there’s a big storm that may (or may not) be coming later this week. Last week, some forecasters (not from the NWS, it should be noted) were calling for blizzard conditions – seven to eight days from any potential storm! That’s lots of planning time, but is it valid to make plans based on seven-day forecasts?

Yesterday morning’s post from NWS Boston included this graphic and description:


Note the words “POTENTIALLY” and “LOW CONFIDENCE FORECAST”. Clicking through to look at the details, you can learn a bit about the model information on which they’re basing their forecast. If you don’t know a lot about meteorology, you can get lost in the abbreviations and details of the models. But the meteorologists have made it easy to understand their shifting confidence by explaining how model runs have shifted as they compile more information. They’ve put a bit of this information into their graphic, illustrating that the model error decreases as more information is known closer to the event.

On a much more novice level, this is what students do when they use High-Adventure Science (HAS) activities. (High-Adventure Science, a National Science Foundation-funded project, produced six NGSS-aligned curricular modules on cutting-edge Earth and environmental science topics. These free, online curricula incorporate real-world data and computational models and are appropriate for middle and high school classrooms.) In HAS activities, students run models and make claims based on data from the model runs. They rate their confidence with their answers and explain the factors that led them to that confidence level.

In our research, we found that when students were asked to write about uncertainty in the context of scientific arguments, they improved their overall argumentation ability. That suggests that teaching about uncertainty in science enables students to better understand real-world science – including weather forecasts.

Will we experience a big snowstorm later this week? I’m confident that the staff at NWS Boston will keep an eye on the model runs, updating me (and the rest of the Boston area) with their forecasts and levels of certainty with the data. In the meantime, check out a High-Adventure Science activity to enhance your students’ scientific thinking skills!




Virtual Solar Grid adds Crescent Dunes Solar Tower

The Crescent Dues Solar Tower as modeled in Energy3D
A light field visualization in Energy3D
A top view
The Crescent Dunes Solar Power Tower is a 110 MW utility-scale concentrated solar power (CSP) plant with 1.1 GWh of molten salt energy storage, located about 190 miles northwest of Las Vegas in the United States (watch a video about it). The plant includes a whopping number of 10,347 large heliostats that collect and focus sunlight onto a central receiver at the top of a 195-meter tall tower to heat 32,000 tons of molten salt. The molten salt circulates from the tower to some storage tanks, where it is then used to produce steam and generate electricity. Excess thermal energy is stored in the molten salt and can be used to generate power for up to ten hours, providing electricity in the evening or during cloudy hours. Unlike other CSP plants, Crescent Dunes' advanced storage technology eliminates the need for any backup fossil fuels to melt the salt and jumpstart the plant in the morning. Each heliostat is made up of 35 6×6 feet (1.8 m) mirror facets, adding up to a total aperture of 115.7 square meters. The total solar field aperture sums to an area of 1,196,778 square meters, or more than one square kilometer, in a land area of 1,670 acres (6.8 square kilometers). That is, the plant is capable of potentially collecting one seventh of all the solar energy that shines onto the field. Costing about $1 billion to construct, it was commissioned in September 2015.

A close-up view of accurate modeling of heliostat tracking
Since its inception in January 2018, our Virtual Solar Grid has included the Energy3D models of nearly all the existing large CSP power plants in the world. That covers more than 80 large CSP plants capable of generating more than 11 TWh per year. The ultimate goal of the Virtual Solar Grid is to mirror every solar energy system in the world in the computing cloud through crowdsourcing involving a large number of students interested in engineering, creating an unprecedentedly detailed computational model for learning how to design a reliable and resilient power grid based completely on renewable energy (solar energy in this phase). The modeling of the Crescent Dunes plant has put our Energy3D software to a stress test. Can it handle such a complex project with so many heliostats in such a large field?
A side view

Near the base of the tower
Over the shoulder of the tower
The solar field
This became my President's Day project. To make this happen, I had to first increase the resolution of Google Maps images supported in Energy3D. A free developer account of Google Maps can only get images of 640 × 640 pixels. When you are looking at an area that is as big as a few square kilometers, that resolution gets you very blurry images. To fetch high-resolution images from Google without paying them, I had to basically make Energy3D download many more images and then knit them together to create a large image that forms an Earth canvas in Energy3D (hence you see a lot of Google logos and copyrights in the ground image that I could not get rid of from each patch). Once I had the Earth canvas, I then drew heliostats on top of it (that is, one by one for more than 10,000 times!) and compared their orientations and shadows rendered by Energy3D with those shown in the Google Maps images. Now, the problem is that Google doesn't tell you when the satellite image was taken. But based on the shadows of the tower and other structures, I could easily figure out an approximate time and date. I then set that time and date in Energy3D and confirmed that the shadow of the tower in the Energy3D model overlaps with that in the satellite image. After this calibration, every single virtual heliostat that I copied and pasted then automatically aligned with those in the satellite image (as long as the original copy specifies the tower that it points to), visually testifying that the tracking algorithm for the virtual heliostats in Energy3D is just as good as the one used by the computers that control the motions of the real-world heliostats. Matching the computer model with the satellite image is essential as the procedure ensures the accuracy of our numerical simulation.

The solar field
After making numerous other improvements for Energy3D, the latest version (V7.8.4) was finally capable of modeling this colossal power plant. This includes the capability of being able to divide the whole project into nine smaller projects and then allow Energy3D to stitch the smaller 3D models together to create the full model using the Import Tool. This divide-and-conquer method makes the user interface a lot faster as neither you nor Energy3D need to deal with 9,000 existing heliostats while you are adding the last 1,000. The predicted annual output of the plant by Energy3D is 462 GWh, as opposed to the official projection of 500 GWh, assuming 90% of mirror reflectance and 25% of thermal-to-electric conversion.

One thing I had to do, though, was to double the memory requirement for the software from the default 256 MB to 512 MB for the Windows version (the Mac version is fine), which would make the software fail on really old computers that have only 256 MB of total memory (but I don't think such old computers would still work properly today anyways). The implication of this change is that, if you are a Windows user and have installed Energy3D before, you will need to re-install it using the latest installer from our website in order to take advantage of this update. If you are not sure, there is a way to know how much memory your Energy3D is allocated by checking the System Information and Preferences under the File Menu. If that number is about 250 MB, then you have to re-install the software -- if you really want to see the spectacular Crescent Dunes model in Energy3D without crashing it.

With basically only the three Ivanpah Solar Towers left to be modeled and uploaded, the Virtual Solar Grid has nearly incorporated all the operational solar thermal power plants in the world. We will continue to add new CSP plants as they come online and show up in Google Maps. In our next phase, we will move to add more photovoltaic (PV) solar power plants to the Virtual Solar Grid. At this point, the proportion of the modeled capacity from PV stands at only 8% in the Virtual Solar Grid, compared with 92% from CSP. Adding PV power plants will really require crowdsourcing as there are many more PV projects in the world -- there are potentially millions of small rooftop systems in existence. On a separate avenue, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has estimated that, if we add solar panels to every square feet of usable roof area in the U.S., we could meet 40% of our total electricity need. Is their statement realistic? Perhaps only time can tell, but by adding more and more virtual solar power systems to the Virtual Solar Grid, we might be able to tell sooner.