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Unexpected Benefits

Users are quickly beginning to appreciate what collabora-tories can offer. Consider how scientists are benefiting from UARC as it evolves. Originally the space physicists just wanted a way to do more experiments without the expense and disruption of packing up and heading to the Sondrestrom Upper Atmospheric Research Facility in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. That’s what they got. The system’s designers arranged for the Sondrestrom instruments to transmit data over the Internet to the researchers, who were also set up with chat boxes on their screens so they could share their reactions to phenomena as they occurred. And the scientists could send instructions to the crew operating the instruments.

For the first time, the researchers didn’t have to cram their observations into a short visit to Greenland and hope conditions would be right for observations, says Clauer, who’s currently on leave from the University of Michigan to direct the National Science Foundation’s magnetosphere physics program. Then some space physicists began dreaming bigger dreams. Why not bring more radar instruments online? Tap into satellite data? Make it possible to see the results of computer models and observational data side by side in real time?

A new version of UARC tested this wish list during two campaigns in October 1996 and April 1997. About 50 researchers worldwide logged on to sample a space-physics smorgasbord. Users could enter various virtual rooms-one for satellite data, another for radar data and models, others for communicating with instrument operators or getting help with software snafus.

The new, improved UARC also enabled the scientists to couple theory and observations better than before. In the April campaign, for example, the scientists used theoretical models to predict what the atmosphere would be doing an hour later, then compared those with what actually happened. That, says Timothy Killeen, director of the University of Michigan’s space-physics research laboratory, was “extraordinary”-the previous time lag was weeks or months.

Moreover, Killeen expects that space physicists will begin scheduling electronic sessions to analyze data and write up results immediately after observing campaigns, which could move the field ahead rapidly by shortening the gap between collecting data and publishing results. “The best papers that are coming out now put multiple data sets together and do comparisons with theory,” says Killeen. Given all the contacts necessary among the various scientists, the work involved when a collaboratory isn’t used is “a two-year tour de force that exhausts everybody.”

Collaborative technology also offers scientists a way to replay interesting observations or experiments. Toward the end of the ‘97 UARC campaign, a major solar flare sent charged particles toward the earth, creating disturbances in the upper atmosphere-just the kind of thing that makes an atmospheric scientist’s heart flutter. The scientists who started UARC hope to convene an electronic workshop to take another look at the data from that event, doing additional analyses on the data and perhaps drawing in participants who missed it the first time around.

Another intriguing aspect of the ‘97 campaign was that it attracted even more onlookers than participating
scientists. According to Olson, who is also an associate dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Information, many people who checked in occasionally “weren’t active participants. That’s a mode of participation that wouldn’t have been possible in the past”-certainly not in that cramped trailer in Greenland. Now, anyone with even a passing interest in the subject can take a peek behind the scenes of a scientific investigation (as long as an electronic firewall isn’t set up).

That kind of glimpse could spark a kid’s interest in science or help a college student grasp a concept that would be difficult to understand from a classroom lecture. Onlookers from unrelated fields might also offer useful perspectives the space physicists would never think of. Such scenes of broadened communications are playing out in several collaboratories.

For instance, faculty at Northern Michigan University (NMU), a small undergraduate school in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, are looking to a collaboratory to expand their access to instruments and experts that otherwise would be out of reach. Through a joint project with Cornell University funded by the National Science Foundation, NMU is installing an all-sky camera, an instrument that takes pictures of the sky from horizon to horizon. Scientists scan the images for atmospheric glows-the aurora borealis is an example-that are tip-offs to what’s happening in the upper atmosphere. The school’s location is ideal for such an instrument, but the faculty lack experience in upper-atmospheric research. Through UARC, researchers at other institutions will not only be able to see and study images from the camera, but the NMU faculty and students also will get to “observe other scientists’ research practices, learn the jargon, and get ourselves to the point where we are comfortable asking questions and contributing ideas,” explains William Ralph, a professor emeritus of physics who heads the project with another physicist, David Donovan. “Then, eventually, we hope we’ll be able to do our own experiments, using both our instruments and other instruments that, through UARC, we can operate remotely.” Students who participate will get a chance to “see what good science looks like,” just as they would at a large research university, says Ralph.

And at major research universities, collaboratories can help less advanced students, report Gary Olson and Tom Finholt, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the University of Michigan’s Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work. They explain that Michigan space-physics graduate students used to do research only in their third or fourth year; with UARC they are jumping into experiments in their first year.

Students and other collaboratory participants are also finding that the setup helps them find mentors in scientists outside their physical institutions. Aaron Ridley, a former student of Bob Clauer, developed such a relationship with Peter Stauning, a senior research scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute. Ridley, now a postdoctoral researcher at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, was an inexperienced grad student in 1993 when UARC was getting under way. During the first experiment he observed, about three weeks after his arrival, Ridley recalls having “no clue to what was going on.” That was OK as long as Clauer was available to answer questions; but when Clauer had to teach a class or take care of other business, Ridley was on his own. He began soliciting advice from Stauning, a constant presence in the collaboratory. Before long, “Peter was kind of like an uncle,” Ridley says, “who shows you the way.”

Mentoring is also a key part of Northwestern’s CoVis project for K-12 students. Faculty and students from the atmospheric sciences department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offer advice and expertise to individual students or whole classrooms. As might be expected, some kids don’t seem to appreciate the offer until the night before a project is due. But others strike up long-term friendships, grilling their mentors on everything from cloud colors and snowfall totals to more personal information, such as age and marital status. “They like getting the quick responses-being able to come up with questions and get answers delivered right to them,” says CoVis coordinator and mentor Steven Hall.

And at the other end of the knowledge spectrum, at least one collaboratory has been set up to help experts find assistance in areas unfamiliar to them. The aim of the Collaboratory for Environmental and Molecular Sciences is to help researchers in different fields work together on the cleanup of radioactive and chemical waste at the Hanford site, a contaminated site in southeastern Washington that covers an area more than half the size of Rhode Island. “What we would really like to do is have some mass spectroscopists and modelers and theoretical chemists work with an engineer who can take that knowledge and turn it into a technology and then work with somebody on the site who’s actually going to use it,” says James Myers, project leader for the Collaboratory for Environmental and Molecular Sciences. “If we don’t happen to have an expert in a certain area, we can go to a university and get one and plug [that person] into the team. It allows us to think more broadly in terms of what we can propose to do.”

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