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Teaching Kids About Invasive Species

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UMD VizLab Creates Interactive Display for Great Lakes Aquarium

Lisa Fitzpatrick, director of UMD’s Visualization and Digital Imaging Lab (known as the VizLab), and the students she works with are always on the lookout for emerging technology. “Our job is to try everything to see if it’s useful on campus and for whom,” she said. That “everything” includes software, equipment, and technical gadgets. If it’s new, someone in the VizLab is probably trying it out.

That spirit of curiosity has resulted in the creation of a new interactive display at Duluth's Great Lakes Aquarium. The exhibit, Repel the Invaders, is designed to teach children (and adults) about invasive species in Lake Superior. The display opens Wed., June 27. Visit the Great Lakes Aquarium website for hours and ticket information.

Push them image
Trap them image
Images from the VizLab's "Repel the Invaders" website

In the display, an animation of the bottom of Lake Superior is projected on a screen. There, native species swim around. When a child casts his or her shadow on the screen (i.e. human intervention), the native species are scared away and invasive species begin to take over. The child can try to trap the invasive species to help the native species come back. "Kids can even work as a team," Fitzpatrick said.

The project began when Fitzpatrick attended a conference and met the developers of a new programming language called Processing. The program is, according to its website, “for people who want to create images, animations, and interactions.” It is an open source program, meaning that anyone can use it.

Fitzpatrick started to think about how she could use the Processing program, but she had to wait until she met two UMD students with whom she could collaborate to actually get a project going. Michele Clark, a graduate student in computer science, and Eric Stykel, a graduate student in graphic design, had the creative talent and the tenacity to embark on this interactive project.

Initially the team thought of doing an interactive display about ocean fish (mostly because sea creatures are so colorful), but eventually decided to switch to a display about lake fish. “We worked with Minnesota Sea Grant to make sure that the images were accurate,” Fitzpatrick noted.

Stykel, who did the illustration and graphic design of the fish for the display, went to the Great Lakes Aquarium to see how the fish swam and whether they swam closer to the surface of the water or closer to the bottom. “I learned that lake fish have a lot more character than I thought,” Stykel said.

Clark enjoyed working on this project because she was in it “from brainstorming to the final project.” The team tested the display using UMD students and staff and students from local elementary schools.

The team observed what got people interacting with the fish. They found that the display’s timing was crucial. “If the fish scattered too quickly, people didn’t seem to understand that they had made them scatter. If they scattered too slowly, people got bored and moved on,” said Fitzpatrick.

Also the team learned that signage was important to tell participants what they needed to do to interact with the fish. The team also played with sounds and the size of the screen.

The elementary students gave them lots of feedback. The team knew that they had created a successful display when they started to get feedback such as, “Your new invention was super cool.”

Fitzpatrick approached the Great Lakes Aquarium, because she had helped them with a previous installation. “They came to see the project. They were already working on an invasive species display, and this was a great fit,” she said.

She believes that interactive displays are the wave of the future. “Aquariums and museums are looking for more interactive displays,” she said.

Fitzpatrick would enjoy doing another interactive project, but admits she’d need the right combination of students. “I couldn’t have done this alone. It had to be done by a team. Michele and Eric are both really talented designers.” Theaterical designer Ann Gumpper, who recently created sets for the School of Fine Arts' production of Cinderella, produced the scenic paintings for the Repel the Invaders exhibit.

Visit the VizLab's "Repel the Invaders" website to see images of native fish and invasive species.

Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann, June 2012

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