|Building the Digital Earth ... (page 4 of 5)|
Our Digital Earth system also provides an expanding range of new opportunities for educators at all levels. The excitement that sophisticated software such as interactive GIS and remote sensing has generated within the research community has reached most students only in the form of isolated, printed, non-interactive images. Students cannot manipulate these images nor plot the same data for a different location, and are only able to view the particular image that someone else has selected for them. Our system enables teachers and students to choose an area of interest close to their location, project a variety of data about that area, and compare their area with others they may choose. With the data and tools made available via the Internet, students and faculty at the undergraduate and secondary school levels, as well as the public, will have access to the same data sets used by leading researchers. The tools that we provide will give even the casual user the ability to display, manipulate, and analyze spatial data. This is an unprecedented opportunity, in that it gives students the ability to explore their environment and answer questions by integrating information from multiple disciplines.
As the WWW becomes more widely used, a wealth of spatially referenced data have already been made available by researchers and organizations. Similarly, a variety of software is available commercially as well as in the public domain. However, our experience shows that the barriers that potential users face in becoming effective users of both data and available software packages are high. First, finding useable data can be difficult. Second, data can be in any of several formats. Often the data format is not compatible with the software tools available. Third, the price of sophisticated software (such as Geographic Information System (GIS), mapping and remote sensing) remains relatively expensive, typically priced out of the reach of secondary school and many college teaching budgets. Fourth, the learning curve for the use of commercially available software remains very steep. Routine tasks, such as overlaying different kinds of data sets can prove difficult and frustrating to individuals with little training and no ready access to professional support. Our Geoscience Information System will provide educators and students with data in a format that is ready to use with tools for display and analysis, in a readily accessible location, i.e., the user's web browser. It will give students the ability to explore data sets on their own, and allow them to experience the thrill and challenge of encountering unexpected results, an important part of the experience of research.