Climate Change and Michigan Forests

University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment

For this project, we used:

  • ■ Drupal
  • ■ Highcharts

Background

In collaboration with K-12 educators in Michigan, a team of researchers at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment (SNRE) developed a multi-part program, called “Climate Change & Michigan Forests,” to educate middle-schoolers about how climate change affects tree growth. The program is intended to teach K-12 students basic scientific data recording, analysis, and presentation techniques. Mouko was approached by Professor Michaela Zint and her team of graduate students to help them create a new website and develop a web-based scientific modeling tool to be used by middle-schoolers and their teachers.

Challenges

  1. Create an attractive, easy-to-maintain website.
    Graduate students would arrive, obtain degrees, and then leave the University. Meanwhile, the website would need to stay up to date. It would need to be simple to use and require minimal training to update.
  2. Ensure user friendliness for middle-schoolers.
    In many cases, this would be middle school students’ first exposure to scientific data modeling, mathematical equations, and graphing. The new system would need to be versatile, instructive, and attention-grabbing, but also mathematically accurate.
  3. Allow updates of graphs in real-time while entering data.
    To enhance understanding of mathematical principles, students would need real-time visual feedback about how new data affected a graph.
  4. Enable real-time customization of charts. 
    Students would also learn techniques for presenting data in an effective way. This might mean allowing them to make wrong decisions (such as choosing white lines on a white background).
  5. Export and saving charts.
    Students connecting to the website anonymously would need to be able to turn in their assignments!

The graphing system allows students to add data and change chart settings, such as line colors and axis titles.

The Solution and the Results

We met weekly with a team of SNRE graduate students to flesh out website specifics. Working from specs provided by a design student, we built the site using the Drupal Content Management System, an easy-to-use platform for maintaining websites. Using a graphing system called Highcharts, we created a completely customized web page that allowed students to enter data, personalize chart appearance, and see the results animated in real time. We modified the graph system to allow exporting of the final product in as a JPEG or PNG image, or as a PDF so students could save or print their work. After creating the website framework, we met with students individually to train them in the Drupal system. The website went live soon after, in December 2014 and is now being piloted by students and teachers. A team of U-M students presented the website at a conference recently and because of its excellent reception, the U-M group is considering expanding the project to support teachers nation-wide.