Arbonauts: of trees, data, and teens

For over a year, metaLAB has been working with the scientific and curatorial staff of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum to explore new digital lives for the institution—not only a much loved public park, but a collection of rare plants, a research site, and an evolving landscape—that will connect it to new audiences locally and globally. One of the most exciting projects we’ve shared so far recently wrapped up at NuVu Studio, a “magnet innovation center for young minds” headquartered in Central Square. Founded by Saeed Arida, a 2010 PhD in MIT’s Design and Computation program, NuVu offers a bracing vision of the power of STEAM: enlivening the left-brain work of making and investigating science, technology, engineering, and math with the expressive energy of the arts. Through a series of two-week studios, students develop media-rich, computationally-intensive projects exploring a heady variety of subjects, from climate change to urban affairs to the reinvention of lunch.

Above: NuVu students learn how to translate weather data into meaningful stories.

The Arboretum and metaLAB worked with NuVu to offer a pair of two-week studios in which students (from Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, among others) undertook remote exploration of the Arboretum in Jamaica Plain from their home base at the NuVu Studio in Cambridge. Through firsthand exploration of the Arboretum, the judicious martialing of online resources, and a great deal of brainstorming and studio experimentation, students developed hardware and software to record phenomena at the Arboretum. In a follow-up studio, students designed interactive, web-native visualizations that put data recorded in the field together with the Arboretum’s collections records—in the process, sketching prototypes for long-term digital outreach and interaction between the Arboretum and schools in the Boston area and beyond.

Above: the Arboretum’s Michael Dosmann introduces students to tools for field data collection; metaLAB’s Yanni Loukissas and Jessica Yurkofsky listen in.

During an initial site visit, students talked to curators and botanists to learn what kinds of data they collected, what kinds of knowledge they created, and what kinds of stories they want to tell about such a place. Under the direction of NuVu’s David Wang and Sean Stevens—the former an MIT PhD candidate in artifical intelligence, the latter a fearless hacker and omnicompetent tech guru— they designed systems for remotely measuring temperatures, wind speeds, air quality, soil types and tree heights; engineered mechanisms for remotely exploring the ground and the canopy amid changing winter conditions; and developed ways to analyze, visualize, and share their data by physical means. We had visions of swarms of sensing, storytelling robots running through the Arboretum fast, cheap, and out of control. The actual projects, in the end, were every bit as fanciful: a bug-eye camera to swoop over a meadow, imaging blossoms in ultraviolet light; a smart birdhouse of clear acrylic stuffed with environmental sensors; an elegant robotic flower, connected to a computer and designed to blink, blossom, and retract its petals in response to incoming information on Arboretum conditions. In the process of researching, designing, building, and deploying their systems, students learned about planet science, data-driven research, and remote sensing technology.

Above: a weatherproof, programmable sensor kit, prior to build.

In a second two-week studio, students tackled their interactive visualizations of Arboretum information, confront the thorny challenges of javascript and obscure data formats to create charismatic, data-driven stories. Led by developer Naf Visser with the support of Jessica Yukofsky, a recent Harvard M.Des and skilled design and coding web coder, the students came up with beautiful online implementations of abstract data sets; their projects can be found here.

In addition to extensive new knowledge about things like plant biology, horticulture, and urban ecology, the students learned what it takes for scientists to make the often-inaccessible worlds of nature visible, exciting and meaningful. They also discovered that effective science depends on sustained teamwork and creative communication just as much as on good questions and hypotheses. Their making allowed them to confront first-hand the powerful role innovative engineering plays in enabling scientists to carry out explorations of organisms and environments by turns complex, unpredictable and fragile. Along the way, we at metaLAB and our Arboretum colleagues learned a great deal about the challenges and rewards of rapid prototyping as pedagogy—and about the promise of engaging the ingenuity of young people in making media, telling stories, and fostering change.