Bat and pigeon teach NASA visitors

The sites are 'pushing some ground in pedagogy,' NASA's Ginger Butcher says, because they make learning 'like a computer game.'

Courtesy of NASA

Courtesy of NASA

Courtesy of NASA

Courtesy of NASA

Interactive Web site, CD-ROM provide tutorials on satellite environmental data

'Even adults don't understand satellite imagery,' said Ginger Butcher, a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center education specialist who's trying to change that with two award-winning, interactive multimedia Web sites.

'To inspire the next generation, you have to get them early,' Butcher said. 'Engage them through context, not abstractions.'

With funding from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer satellite program, Butcher in 1997 started work on the interactive adventures of Echo the Bat, who navigates through five Arizona habitats shown by Landsat satellite images.

Although the adventures are geared to children from kindergarten through fourth grade, the site at teaches visitors of any age how to identify unfamiliar surroundings depicted by remote-sensing environmental data.
A second site, launched last October at, follows the adventures of Amelia the Pigeon around New York City.

The Echo site design is simple, using only HTML and JavaScript, but the Amelia design is more sophisticated, Butcher said, because of 'the evolution of the Web.'

Amelia the Pigeon's site uses audio, Apple QuickTime videos and Macromedia Flash animations, all created under Mac OS and hosted on Goddard's Unix servers.

The two sites are 'pushing some ground in pedagogy,' Butcher said, because they make learning 'like a computer game.' They draw more than 26,000 visitors per month. NASA also makes the material available to schools on CD-ROM.
The environmental images on both sites come from Landsat Thematic Mapper sensors, which register sunlight reflected by the Earth's surface in near-infrared and far-infrared (thermal) frequencies. Butcher described the sensors as 'like digital cameras but multispectral' beyond visible-light wavelengths.

Visitors to both NASA sites see the sensors' grid readings transformed into true- and false-color pixels to emphasize certain features of an image.

Red is healthy

For example, light reflectance makes healthy green vegetation appear red. The ability to understand such images is important in forestry, pest control, and crop yield and animal migration analyses.
NASA specialists convert the sensors' reflectance readings into pixels with Geomatica geographic modeling software from PCI Geomatics Group Inc. of Toronto. Each pixel in an image represents the light energy reflected by a ground cell of about 900 square meters.

After practicing on the Echo and Amelia sites, Butcher said, even kindergartners can recognize forests, rivers, lakes and cities in satellite imagery.

Most of the comments e-mailed by students and teachers to Butcher or her alias, Pixelsaurus, ask, 'What's next?'


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