UH Hilo students learn data visualization techniques to promote public awareness of environmental issues

Data science training for the real world: Cross-disciplinary course is an opportunity for computer science, marine science, and art majors to collaborate on a digital project meant to educate the public on ecological issues.  

By Mikayla Toninato.

Student at laptop with image of nene on the screen. In background are students sitting at desks and also working on laptops.
Students work on their projects in Applied Digital Visualization class.

A cross-disciplinary course offered at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo through the departments of computer science, marine science, and art, is giving students the chance to learn cutting-edge data visualization techniques while working collaboratively on a shared project.

Michael Marshall
Michael Marshall

“The students are utilizing data from the natural sciences to create interactive and immersive data visualization experiences to promote public awareness of environmental issues facing Hawaiian ecosystems,” says Michael Marshall, chair of the UH Hilo art department.

The data visualization is done using CyberCANOE visual display technology—CANOE is the acronym for Cyber Enabled Collaboration Analysis Navigation and Observation Environment and is a display technology that enables users from varied disciplines to share and collaborate on projects.

The CyberCANOE technology is funded through the Academy for Creative Media System, based in Honolulu. UH Hilo technology sites are located in the computer science department, the Mookini Library, and ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i. The technology also allows collaborative projects between UH campuses throughout the state.

Traditionally, majors at a university can be very much segregated, but with CyberCanoe technology, UH Hilo and other UH campuses offer a change of pace. The cross-disciplinary course now underway at UH Hilo is an opportunity for computer science, marine science, art majors and others to come together to apply their various skills toward one final project. From the catalog:

ART 401 – Applied Digital Visualization

This team-taught course provides an interdisciplinary framework for learning cutting-edge data visualization techniques. The class enables students from varied disciplines to work together and develop collaborative projects. Students are taught hands-on skills for creating effective data visualization products and tools that can be applied to a broad range of scientific disciplines. (Pre: ART 112)

The class was originally placed within the marine science department. Co-taught with UH Mānoa, the first class saw about 30 students between both campuses. Now moved within the computer science department, the main idea behind the class is to bring together students of different disciplines to learn skills they will need in the real world after graduation, such as proficiency in digital visualization data.

The game

The focus of the current class is to create a digital game backed by data. This semester’s class is focusing on mongoose (Herpestes javanicus), an invasive species found on several islands in Hawai‘i. The game places the player as the mongoose itself. There is much to be researched as to how a mongoose moves, what it eats, and the environment in which it lives. Although the work can be divided in any way chosen by the students, this research is usually taken up by marine science students.

The next part is for the artists to digitally create the scenery of the game. This includes matching art styles to create one cohesive look as well as utilizing the data given to create realistic looking scenarios.

Lastly comes the part of bringing it all to life, usually taken up by computer science majors. They take the art produced and make it move, again in a way that is realistic, allowing the game to be played.

The CyberCANOE set up for this class consists of three large monitors that look like flat screen televisions in the front of a computer lab. The software allows for any of the computers in the lab to take over the monitors at any point and transfer images or data on the large screens to be shown to the entire class. This way, when working with a large class on a collaborative project such as this, students can show their work and communicate more clearly about their progress.

“This is probably the coolest set up I’ve been in at this school,” remarks a student of the class when explaining that the advanced technology of the classroom inspires them to perform better to fully take advantage of this opportunity.

The teamwork required to use CyberCANOE adds to the collaborative nature of this class and is something most students are not used to seeing. Students enjoy working more with other classmates instead of working alone on individual work; they learn not only how to equally divide work through collaboration but also how to have productive conversations as well.

“It’s different because we need more positive conversation—without that conversation we can’t proceed with our project,” explains a student.

Training for the real world

The cross-disciplinary nature of this class offers a wide variety of aspects for many different kinds of students. For art majors it offers them work that they may add to their portfolio at the end of the semester.

An art major explains how the digital design classes leading up to this semester have been nothing like the work she has been doing here. “This is one of the first art classes I’ve taken since high school that will actually help me get into the digital art industry, which is what I want to do. I want to make video games.”

The artistic techniques that are taught in this class are much different from typical art classes. This class focuses more on animation. The process involves creating characters and landscapes but the goal is to make them move using different angles to create 3-D effects.

Jon Goebel
Jon Goebel

“The experience provides an opportunity for art students to learn more about scientific inquiry and analysis as well as cutting edge technology used in digital visualization platforms,” says Jon Goebel, the associate professor of art who is teaching the art component of the class.

For science majors, the skills gained through the class are strong. The class teaching assistant Michael Morrissey explains, “The main draw for science students is […] just how powerful data science is.” He says visualized data can be used to inspire the general public about important scientific concepts. “It can be inspiring showing science to people that don’t necessarily get into it [otherwise].”

Further, the hard work of science researchers can only go so far in making an impact without their work being shown to the general public. Through emerging visualization data and digital media, researchers have an opportunity to bring their work to life. One of the most important reasons for all science majors to try this course is to learn the use of visualization technology to spread awareness— in the case of this class, awareness about environmental issues facing Hawaiian ecosystems.

“I’ve seen amazing things out of these students with their capabilities,” says Morrissey. “I think we’re going to see some really amazing stuff at the end of the semester.”

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Mikayla Toninato, a junior completing a semester at UH Hilo through the National Student Exchange program, is a writer for UH Hilo Stories. She is majoring in journalism with minors in graphic design and digital media studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

April 4, 2018: A correction was made to the link to the Academy for Creative Media System.