Monday, June 25, 2018

A Sandy Simulation

A Technology-Enhanced Sandbox Helps Rhode Island Youth Understand Watershed, Erosion and Topography

by Katy Dorchies, marketing and graphics specialist

In an effort to illuminate watershed issues, Save The Bay educators are breaking into the virtual world with their newest technological acquisition: the AR (augmented reality) Sandbox. The first of its kind in the state of Rhode Island, this hands-on exhibit and learning tool goes online in Save The Bay lessons starting this month. 

“The concept of a watershed is not necessarily as easy to understand as some of us think,” said Save The Bay Education Specialist Lauren Farnsworth. “The most important part of using the sandbox in our lessons is that students get in there and have the opportunity to manipulate the land, the rainfall, and really get an idea of how water flows.”

“We want students to understand that anything they do on land has the potential to affect all of their water resources, from drinking water and irrigation to recreation,” said Save The Bay Education Specialist Letty Hanson. 

The complete AR Sandbox structure includes a seven foot projector stand and a raised 3.5’ long, 2.5’ wide and 8” deep sandbox. A digital projector is affixed above the sandbox, directed towards the surface of the sand. While not in use, the equipment could appear simplistic; however, when educators turn the machine on, a new understanding of this exhibit comes to light.

Using a 3D camera and a video projector, the technology in the AR Sandbox works with the sculpted sand beneath it to produce a light-and color-based topographic overlay. As students shift the sand in the sandbox, the topographic map adjusts in real time, using a spectrum of colors and contour lines to bring the mock landscape below to life. The simulation adds bright blue pools to represent bodies of water at the sandbox’s lowest points, and those interacting with the sandbox can even use hand gestures under the projector to prompt a rainfall simulation.

“The AR Sandbox is an appealing blend of cool technology and get-your-hands-sandy learning,” said Save The Bay’s Lead Captain Eric Pfirrmann. “Students will be able to explore the concepts assisted by the technology, not driven by it.” 

The technology in the AR Sandbox was initially developed in 2013 as part of an open-source program at the University of California, Davis by researchers looking to improve the instruction of earth sciences. Save The Bay’s education staff first set their sights on acquiring the sandbox in 2016, and their efforts were finally realized when funding was acquired in late 2017.

Pfirrmann, assisted by volunteer Don DeLuca, began the physical construction of the sandbox in December 2017. By the following February, the sandbox was ready for its augmented reality technology. This final stage of preparation revealed the true complexity of the sandbox system, requiring the installation of three software packages, two types of hardware calibration, and the configuration of a Linux operating system. Now, the AR Sandbox is ready to be used by Save The Bay educators as they introduce students to watershed issues.

“It adds another layer of hands-on learning while helping students develop the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills that are so crucial to their success. This resource will help students develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills when it comes to their place in the watershed, and our program will encourage them to incorporate solutions to everyday challenges we face in the Narragansett Bay watershed,” said Save The Bay’s Education Director Bridget Kubis Prescott.

During lessons at the Bay Center, students will be asked to consider all of the forces at play within a watershed—from the pull of gravity and the consequences of rainfall to the complexity of tributaries—while gaining the vocabulary needed to describe coastal features. 

“Since Save The Bay’s mission is to protect and improve Narragansett Bay, teaching students about watersheds is crucial so that they can make informed decisions when it matters,” said Hanson. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Critter Tale: The Mighty Short Bigeye

By Julia Gentillo, communications intern

Welcome into my humble abode, a spacious tank for me at the back of Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium. I’m the only Short Bigeye here, but I’m not lonely at all; even in my natural habitat, I am usually by myself. Before making my way to Rhode Island, I lived in tropical waters, as my species is most populous in the Caribbean Sea, West Indies and the Gulf of Mexico.
How did you make it all the way up here from all the way down there, you must be asking? A Gulf stream current swept me up when I was young and carried me all the way to these northern waters. Once a small fish or egg is caught in the current, they really can’t escape. Believe it or not, I am not the only fish here that got caught in the current and made its way into the Bay. Some of my tropical stray neighbors at the Exploration Center include the striped burrfish, crevalle jack, scamp grouper, pinfish and the colorful spotfin butterflyfish. My fellow tropical strays and I were found by local fishermen and Save The Bay students who brought us into our new cozy tanks. Together, we make up the “Bay of the Future” exhibit.
Although finding tropical strays in the Bay is fascinating, our presence here is an indication of climate change. In the last 100 years, the average temperature of the Bay has risen four degrees. While tropical strays cannot survive a harsh Rhode Island winter, each year we have been arriving to Narragansett Bay earlier and surviving longer into the colder months. Climate change is aggressively changing the environment and ecosystems in Narragansett Bay. The “Bay of the Future” exhibit poses the important question: “What will the Bay look like in 1,000 years?” Perhaps the warming water temperatures will mean the end of winter flounder, sea stars and clams in Narragansett Bay. Or perhaps, as tropical fish like me continue to populate the Bay, we’ll outcompete the native fish altogether once waters continue to warm even more.
For now, we are able to survive the winters only from the warmth of our tanks at the Exploration Center, where we also help teach visitors about climate change. The ultraviolet light in my tank makes it difficult for you to tell, but I am actually bright red, critical to my survival. In the wild, I like to hang out around 650 feet deep. As light penetrates down into the water from the surface, red light waves are filtered out first, so I appear black to other fish. With my camouflaged coloring, I am able to sneak up on my prey and snatch them in my upturned mouth without them even noticing me. I am nocturnal, so my big eyes help me see at night.
During the day, I love to sleep in shallow rocky areas where my natural predators can’t see me. In fact, I was napping in a shallow rocky area off of Fort Adams when I was rescued by a Bay-Camper. Once night falls, I leave my safe place and scour for food with a cloak of invisibility. I think you all should come and visit me and the other tropical strays this summer at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium at Easton’s Beach in Newport.