January 12, 2006

Irvine World News

Engaging kids to appreciate habitat restoration

By Michael Rydzynski

UC Irvine project combines computer graphics with a flair for drama.

On first glance, a scientifically based interactive exhibition called the EcoRaft that deals with ecology may seem worlds away from the performing arts. But in point of fact, it is quite dramatic.

"The main focus of my research is to look at ways to present information in an engaging way," said Bill Tomlinson, UC Irvine professor of informatics and drama and a faculty member of the Arts, Computation and Engineering program on campus. "In that regard, informatics deals largely with how to present the information, and drama focuses on how to engage audiences.

"In this project, the information we are trying to present in an engaging way is the work of an ecology professor here at UCI, one of the world's experts in restoration ecology, whose 10-year research has focused on the restoration of Costa Rica farmlands."

The project - a merging of the arts (drama, visual art) with computing, ecology and education - is called EcoRaft and was created by Tomlinson and F. Lynn Carpenter, UCI professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the restoration ecology expert.

"It's a hands-on interactive exhibit designed to help children learn about the science of restoration ecology," Tomlinson explained. "By creating an interactive simulation of a tropical ecosystem, the project lets children experiment with different ways of restoring habitats."

Stationary monitors and mobile tablet personal computers are used to allow participants to move virtual species (computer animation) between virtual islands, thereby demonstrating the principle that it is easy to destroy an ecosystem but difficult to restore it.

"For example," Tomlinson said, "in the exhibit there are several different plant and animal species, including coral trees, heliconia plants and several species of hummingbirds. Each of three computer screens shows a different graphical habitat, and participants can carry species between habitats, using mobile computing devices.

"Each species has certain habitat characteristics that it needs in order to thrive - hummingbirds need flowering plants to feed on, for example - and if you bring a hummingbird to a habitat that has no flowering plants, the hummingbird won't become established in that habitat. Therefore, visitors can learn about interdependencies between the species."

With an $80,000 Nicholas Foundation Prize for Cross-Disciplinary Research, the EcoRaft Project, which was developed last spring and summer by a team of UCI professors and graduate and undergraduate students, has completed its prototype phase and was unveiled at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana on two occasions as well as at the Sally Ride Festival at UCI before a group of fifth-to eighth-grade girls.

"So now we're working on ways to make the project robust enough whereby we have exhibits that can spin off from that continuing research to become installed permanently in a museum," Tomlinson said. "This is all building on research several of us have been doing for years prior to initiating this project."

That includes Tomlinson's own Virtual Raft Project, a similar system in which three desktop computers and three tablet PCs work together to produce animated characters that will appear to jump from a desktop onto a PC. The two main research areas involved in that project, cross-device graphics and interactive computer animation, are also incorporated into the EcoRaft.

"The EcoRaft Project may be under continued development for quite some time," Tomlinson said. What: The EcoRaft, with its ecological base, also involves something from the world of drama and art, according to co-creator Bill Tomlinson.
Engaging kids to appreciate habitat restoration