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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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Bringing the Universe - Real and Imagined - Into the Classroom

The rest of the universe got a little closer to your classroom this week when Google announced the addition of high-resolution space images to its Google Earth tool. And if the real universe isn’t good enough for you, there’s even a wiki galaxy you can edit to create your own solar system. Combine these ideas with virtual worlds like Second Life, and the educational possibilities are endless.

It’s no secret that I’m a space nut. I spent most of my childhood on the Space Coast of Florida, spending my free time watching dozens of rockets and shuttles go up - and occasionally come down. On weekend evenings, I’d use that telescope I got for Hanukkah one year to try to take photographs of the stars and nebulae. And every now any then, my friend Todd would let me visit the full-size replica of a Gemini command module that had been put together in his garage by a NASA engineer who lived in the house previously. There was no way getting away from the space program in my neighborhood, but when you’re a kid, why would you?

Even though I no longer have that telescope - and if I did, there’s too much light pollution in the DC area to put it to good use - I still have the space bug in me. So that’s why I was really, really excited earlier this week when I heard the news that Google Earth was going well beyond its name, adding the rest of the universe into its topographical repertoire.

Sky in Google Earth is a browsable composite of high-res photos taken by astronomers. It features 100 million stars and 200 million galaxies, many of which you can zoom in and explore in greater detail. (You’ll need to download the latest version of Google Earth for it to work, as it’s a desktop experience and not a Web tool.) Stellar objects can also be set in motion; for example, you can observe the planets as they revolve around the sun and see how their relative positions change.

Google has also created overlays such as constellation maps, and hopes that users will do the same. The idea of allowing the public to create their own astronomical mashups is particularly compelling, especially when it comes to constellations. Different cultures have often created their own interpretations of what constellations exist in the sky, so I could easily see toggling between each culture’s constellations, having students accessing and creating resources describing how each culture’s choices of constellations relate to their myths and history. Users will also be able to upload their own photos - something that amateur astrophotographers will probably love. (Man, I want my telescope back.)

The launch of Sky in Google Earth got a lot of press this week, but it’s not the only universe in town. Galaxiki is a new website that takes an editable wiki and applies it to a fictional universe. Users of the site can browse a galaxy, find a star and its surrounding solar system, then edit the information about it. For example, browsing the site you might find a star with six planets, including a couple of gaseous giants and perhaps an earth-like planet with a moon or two. Galaxiki lets you edit each planet’s geological and biological histories and tweak certain physical variables, like the percentage of water available on the surface.

Galaxiki wasn’t created with schools in mind, and it shows. There’s almost as much stuff on the site about science fiction movies as there are planets, and I wish I had a dollar for every time they used the word “it’s” incorrectly. Whether or not the site can be used in a classroom context remains to be seen, but the idea behind it holds a lot of promise.

I can imagine a stellar wiki tool - no pun intended - that would let students create solar systems from scratch. They could add planets with different orbits, taking into account basic laws of physics and astronomy in terms of where they place them, their size, their influence on each other and their potential for life. If the tool were designed well, you could also set your solar systems in motion, like Google Earth, simulating the effects of interplanetary gravity and the occasional asteroid. You could create and edit solar systems from a macro level, while creating simulated environments on each planet surface. So just as Second Life lets users buy their own islands, this tool would let users buy their own solar systems, planets and moon. So forget Second Life - think Second Universe.

Given the proliferation of tools that make it easier than ever for people to create their own virtual environments, it’s probably just a matter of time before we see virtual universe environments like this appropriate for educational use. I just wish I had the skills to build it myself. Now that would be fun. MacArthur Foundation grant, anyone? -andy

Filed under : Cool Tools, Wikis


I am very pleased with this site. It is very similar to something that I want to do with my students. I believe that if my students were posting their article reflections on a blog they just might be more willing to participate.

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