February 21, 2007

Lessons learned from the SDSU Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve HPWREN Live Interactive Virtual Explorations events during the AAAS 2007 conference exhibit

On February 16th-18th San Diego State University's Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve (SMER) collaborated with the National Science Foundation funded High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN) project to demonstrate the potential for long distance research and education programs for an audience at the AAAS 2007 annual meeting's National Science Foundation booth in San Francisco. During the demonstration, Program Scientist Spring Strahm interacted with National Park Service employee Morgan Robertson and other meeting attendees. The real-time data collection capabilities facilitated by HPWREN were demonstrated by perturbing water sensors at the edge of the Santa Margarita River.

Since 2002, SMER and HPWREN have been collaborating with SMER's Research Technology Manager Pablo Bryant supervising the installation of telecommunications towers through the reserve - creating a wireless Internet bubble that covers 90 percent of SMER's 4600 acres. This effort was no small task, given the rugged topography throughout much of the reserve. However the benefits have been immense. SMER is now the most heavily sensored patch of wilderness in the country, with 30 weather stations, 14 web cameras, 13 remote wildfire detecting sensors, and 3 water quality sensors all reporting in real time. In many ways SMER has already demonstrated the potential for projects such as the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and CalEON (California Ecological Observatory Network).


Spring Strahm (left and top right) is working with Pablo Bryant (botton, right) to communicate in real-time with the NSF booth at the AAAS 2007 Annual Meeting exhibit's show floor.


In order to communicate with the conference, Strahm used a laptop running Skype (free Internet phone/video conferencing software), a head set, a video camera, and an additional antenna to add to the laptop's built-in antenna. This set up took approximately 15 minutes to hook together, test and fit inside a backpack to afford better mobility. Pablo Bryant ensured that the network was ready to go ahead of time, and helped Strahm with the setup each day.

Once a connection to the conference was made, Strahm provided a brief history of the reserve, and showed off various aspects of SMER's regional and scientific importance. The audience was able to view features she discussed on part of a video wall, and to ask questions via a microphone set up at HPWREN's display. To help facilitate discussions, Morgan Robertson (National Park Service), began asking questions and handing the microphone around to various conference attendees.

As part of the presentation, real-time water quality data was being displayed on a screen adjacent to Strahm's video feed. By looking at these graphics, conference attendees were able to look at baseline levels of pH, conductivity and dissolved oxygen in the river. Strahm then demonstrated the capacity of real-time monitoring to record disturbances by placing the sensors in a bucket of water and adding baking soda. This caused rapid changes in pH, dissolved oxygen and conductivity that could be viewed in real-time at the conference. As these changes occurred, Strahm fielded questions from the audience.

Lessons Learned (Spring Strahm's Perspective):

We began preparing for the conference about four weeks before the actual events. This was largely so we could ensure that we had enough bandwidth to send a clean audio and visual signal to San Francisco, and to make sure that I knew how to use the setup. I came into this presentation style totally green: I had never used Skype before, nor had I ever done or viewed a remote presentation before. Pablo Bryant, our Research Technology Manager, had to walk me through each step, while simultaneously keeping an eye on the wireless network. From the time we began our first practice run with Hans-Werner Braun to the end of the conference, I was learning what it was like to instruct from the other end of a wireless signal. Here is a list of some of those lessons:

  1. Keep the camera steady. Any unintentional jiggle to the camera is amplified on the screen at the other end-- you could wind up making your audience sea-sick! This can be especially hard when moving around rough terrain. Two ways of dealing with this issue is using a tripod when possible, and having someone spot you on the camera work. On this same vein it is best to minimize using the zoom feature, and to only use the zoom when the camera is on a tripod.

  2. Show the audience who they are talking to. I am a little camera shy, so my first instinct was to point the camera away from me, and at the scenery around the reserve. This may seem like the right thing to do -- the audience is here to see something they cannot see everyday. However, if you do not show at least a little of yourself, it gives the appearance of a disembodied voice, and may actually inhibit the engagement of the audience.

  3. Have someone at the other end of the presentation to break the ice. This is a totally new way of approaching research and education. There are a number of reasons why folks might be less likely to ask you questions than if you are really there. One of the main issues is that you cannot actually make eye contact with an individual, just the camera. Having someone on the other end (for this presentation Morgan Robertson) to begin the interaction with, and to help draw in the audience, is a tremendous benefit.

  4. Practice when you can. You want to be particularly attentive to how you sound and to use different camera techniques. During our practice runs we discovered a number of technical details that might have gone unnoticed until the conference. For example, we learned about holding the camera still and minimizing zooms. We also figured out where the ideal position of the microphone relative to my mouth was.

  5. Test experiments beforehand, and go for simplicity. I had wanted to show real-time response to perturbations in the river, and talk about the biological ramifications about such changes. I decided to go for realisms, instead of using vinegar to change the pH, chose to use concentrated sulfuric acid, because that is one of the acids in acid rain. I also chose to use sodium sulfite (toxic at 100ppm and deadly at 800ppm) to reduce the dissolved oxygen because that chemical is used in industry. Well, the river water was so well buffered the pH barely changed with the acid, and I gave myself a four-day headache with the sodium sulfite. After a few more practice runs I switched to baking soda, which changed all the variables at once, and really did the trick. And, I was still able to discuss the biological ramifications just fine!

  6. Be mindful of what you are showing and saying. There was an instance on a practice run where I got very excited about some coyote scat, and promptly zoomed in on it. Then it occurred to me that while scat is reasonably useful from a biological standpoint, telling you what the animal has eaten in the last couple of days, that the audience probably did not need a tight-framed vision of poop to understand the point I was trying to make.

A summary of the HPWREN AAAS 2007 exhibit event, as well as a pointer to many more photos, can be found at /news/20070220/.

Spring Strahm
Program Scientist
Field Stations Programs
San Diego State University

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