A Beautiful Earth Educates and Inspires

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A Flow Chart of relation between climate change and glacier length.

Kenji Williams performing the Bella Gaia show. Photo Source: Meaningful MediaThose of us who haven’t gone into space will get a feel for what it’s like thanks to a three-year grant awarded to Valerie Casasanto. Her project, called Beautiful Earth, will incorporate education, science and art into a visual and musical experience.

The project is based on a similar venture called Bella Gaia — a theatrical experience simulating an astronaut’s look at Earth from space, with a live musical performance by violinist and composer Kenji Williams.

Looking at our planet from a spacecraft can create an ‰ÛÏoverview effect‰Û — what astronauts describe as an elevated sense of euphoria. Casasanto and her team have built on this idea by partnering with NASA, the University of Maryland, Remedy Arts, and five museums.

She says she’s excited that her project will be largely distributed, because she believes it will create a greater awareness and appreciation for Earth systems, and help inspire students. The competitive grant comes from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

‰ÛÏThis program is powerful in that it combines music, science, Earth and space imagery, and cultural perspectives all at the same time, making it a very valuable tool for education,‰Û Casasanto said.

Casasanto and Williams answer student questions during a special broadcast to NASA's Digital Learning Network in celebration of Earth Day, 2010. Photo Source: NASA GSFCThe Beautiful Earth project is a follow up to a successful project that Casasanto worked on called the Digital Learning Network (DLN). During Earth Day events in 2009 and 2010, high school and middle school students watched the Bella Gaia performance. Afterwards, specialists explained specific processes presented in the images and videos, such as forest fires, sea surface temperature and polar ice.

The timeline for Casasanto’s Beautiful Earth project will coincide with NASA mission timelines. For example, the successful June 10 launch of the Aquarius mission will bring back data on ocean salinity levels which can then be presented during the show. Casasanto also plans to use the final shuttle mission in her presentation, as well as information gathered by older satellites such as Terra and Aqua. This data will be explained by experts including Dr. Thorsten Markus (head, Cryospheric Sciences Branch), Dr. Nancy Maynard (senior research scientist, Cryospheric Sciences Branch), and Dr. Robert Cahalan (Head, Climate and Radiation Branch).

The Beautiful Earth program will work through numerous engagement portals: Museums and planetariums, live shows, hands-on workshops, the DLN, Channel One Television, on-line workshops and websites, and the Bella Gaia Live Fulldome master, which involves showing the presentation in a massive, dome-shaped sphere that captures the audience using multiple projectors.

Horace Mitchell of NASA's GSFC shows off images from the Scientific Visualization Studio. Photo Credit: Wanda ArchyThe Beautiful Earth education project also has three parts. The first will focus on ‰ÛÏSpaceship Earth Scientist‰Û and is intended to strengthen science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning in the fields directly related to Earth studies. The second, on ‰ÛÏSpaceship Earth Data,‰Û will be led by Ronan Hallowell and Native American scientist Jim Rock, will include Native American experts to explain how they study and conserve the Earth in their own unique ways.

Casasanto says, ‰ÛÏIt is important to consider all aspects of the Earth, because it is a complex system, and indigenous people, in particular Native Americans, have lived in harmony with the Earth for thousands of years. This whole module will be powerful because it will introduce indigenous students to NASA Earth Sciences and STEM careers at NASA, but at the same time it will teach non-native students about the indigenous perspective.‰Û

The images and videos shown in this multimedia production are gathered from the Scientific Visualization Studio that ‰ÛÏfacilitates scientific inquiry and outreach within NASA programs through visualization.‰Û Currently, there are about 3,900 of these within the database. Williams also uses a special program called Uniview, which allows him to integrate the flyovers and orbital projections into the show.