Re-Imagining the Big Picture

Worldviews Network Overview

We are living in the Anthropocene, an era in which global change induced by human activities is occurring at rates that are unprecedented in our history. The signs are pervasive: the increasing rate of atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulation, the increasing rate of sea level rise, the rapid depletion of freshwater resources, the continuing transformation of natural landscapes, the rate of loss of biodiversity—the collective pursuits of human societies now affect our entire Earth system. Humans have become a force equivalent to the great geologic changes of the history of our planet that have shaped life on Earth. Yet we have only been recently aware of our power as a species to influence and modify our environment on such planetary scales, and this awareness has not penetrated deeply into society’s collective knowledge and behavior.

At the same time, the evolution of technologies is delivering an explosion of bio- and geospatial information about our living planet and its relationship to the universe. A dramatic revolution is underway in how this information can be processed and displayed. At the forefront are digital planetariums that simulate cosmic phenomena at a variety of spatial and temporal scales, and as a result are transforming astronomy education. Astronomical databases collected into the Digital Universe atlas have enabled such “fulldome” planetariums to interactively simulate a “god’s eye view” of Earth and the observable universe. Like the Ptolemaic and Copernican cosmographies, the Apollo 8 Earthrise photograph, and Charles and Ray Eames’ seminal film Powers of 10, this disembodied perspective engages viewers’ visual intelligence to encourage them to reflect on humanity’s home in the cosmos. The Worldviews Network is turning the power of immersive visualization into a revolutionary tool for innovation in ecological literacy programming.

The more than 600 digital planetariums in the United States collectively represent a pioneering opportunity for distributing Earth systems messages over large geographic areas. By placing the viewer—and Earth itself —within the context of the rest of the Universe, digital planetariums can uniquely provide essential multi-scale perspectives on the complex interdependencies of Earth’s interacting physical and biological systems. Multiple spatial scales can be represented by moving at will among galactic, solar system, whole Earth, and regional points of view. Real-time planetarium visualization systems can also simulate moving through time, facilitating discussions, for example, of paleoclimate, present-day climate patterns, and recent land use transitions that underlie the biodiversity crisis. Visualizations of phenomena at a wide range of spatio-temporal scales, and using spectral bands beyond the range of unaided human perception, can provide insights into how scientific observations reveal otherwise imperceptible ecological interactions. These capabilities provide a necessary context within which the concepts of planetary boundaries can be introduced, including how environmental conditions that have been taken for granted throughout the history of human civilization have become destabilized due to the activities of modern societies.

The Worldviews Network is a collaboration of institutions that have pioneered Earth systems research, education and evaluation methods, including Denver Museum of Nature and Science, California Academy of Sciences, NOVA/WGBH, The Elumenati, NOAA’s Climate Program Office, Minnesota Planetarium Society, American Museum of Natural History, Journey Museum, NEMAC/RENCI, Exhibit Museum of Natural History, Ft. Worth Museum of Science and History, NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, NASA Ames Research Center, and the Institute for Learning Innovation. We are creating innovative approaches for engaging the American public in dialogues about human-induced global changes, leveraging the power of immersive scientific visualization environments at informal science centers across the US by developing transformative educational processes that integrate the benefits of visual thinking, systems thinking, and design thinking. This “seeing, knowing, doing” approach empowers educators with tools and techniques that help audiences to visualize, comprehend, and address complex issues from a whole-systems perspective. The Worldviews Network will make explicit the interconnections of Earth’s life support systems across time and space as well as inspire community participation in design processes by providing real-world examples of successful projects that are increasing the healthy functioning of regional and global ecosystems.

Our interdisciplinary team is currently:

  1. Developing a library of immersive visualization story templates leveraging existing scientific data from NOAA and other sources, with learning goals aligned to climate and earth science literacy principles;

  2. Designing and delivering a professional development (PD) program to train informal science educators and planetarium professionals in Earth systems literacy along three initial topic areas: biodiversity loss, climate change, and ocean acidification;

  3. Creating regional networks between planetariums and researchers that will allow the creation of geographically and culturally relevant immersive dome experiences;

  4. Establishing connections with organizations (NGOs, environmental literacy groups) that will give visitors opportunities for continued engagement in design processes; and

  5. Formally evaluating the efficacy of the professional development program on participants and end-users.

We are currently focused on professional development with partners, but will be launching a public web site at soon.