Summer Salon at The Exploratorium, July 31! Be There.

We’re thrilled to announce that our second quarterly reader salon will take place at The Exploratorium! This San Francisco institution is ground zero for all things science, art and human perception. Its mission is to “ignite curiosity, encourage exploration, and lead to profound learning.” Hey, that’s our mission, too.

In our stories this month, we’re looking at environment issues through the lens of competition, games, and play. At the salon, we’ll dive into a new approach to river restoration that focuses on both preserving aquatic ecology and riding the rapids. We’ll also ponder the power of hard-core environmentalists to change the course of consumerism. Plus, we’ve got some surprises! Extra bonus: alcohol!

Starting at 6:30pm, it all takes place in a fabulous room for exploring the Bay and City: The Bay Observatory Gallery.  The program will run until 8:00pm and the museum is open until 10:00pm on Thursday nights, so there will be plenty of time to explore. Current subscribers get $5 off the entrance fee and we’re offering a great ticket + subscription package for those new to Climate Confidential. Click here for ticket and program details!

Photo by Andrew Ballantyne/Flickr

Child’s Play

A woman peers through goggles embedded in a large black helmet. Forest sounds emanate from various corners of the room: a bird chirping here, a breeze whispering there. She moves slowly around the room. On the wall, a flat digital forest is projected so observers can get a rough idea of her surroundings, but in her mind’s eye, this undergrad is no longer pacing a small, cramped room in a university lab. Thanks to that black helmet, she’s walking through the woods.

In a minute, she’s handed a joystick that looks and vibrates like a chainsaw, and she’s asked to cut down a tree. As she completes the task, she feels the same sort of resistance she might feel if she were cutting down a real tree. When she leaves this forest, and re-enters the “real” world, her paper consumption will drop by 20 percent and she will show a measurable preference for recycled paper products. Those effects will continue into the next few weeks and researchers hypothesize it will be a fairly permanent shift. By comparison, students who watch a video about deforestation or read an article on the subject will show heightened awareness of paper waste through that day — but they will return to their baseline behavior by the end of the week.

The tree-cutting study is one of many that Stanford University has conducted in its Virtual Human Interaction Lab over the last several years in an attempt to figure out the extent to which a simulated experience can affect behavior. And it’s part of a growing body of research that suggests virtual experiences may offer a powerful catalyst for otherwise apathetic groups to begin caring about issues and taking action, including on climate change. That’s important because while time spent in nature has been proven to be quite beneficial to human health, whether or not humans repay the favor tends to rely on the type of nature experiences they have in their youth. In a 2009 study published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers from the University of Pretoria in South Africa found that while people who spent time hiking and backpacking were more willing to support conservation efforts a decade or more later, those who had visited national parks or spent time fishing as kids were actually less inclined to do anything to support the environment. An earlier (2006) study on the relationship between nature experiences and environmentalism found that while those who had spent their youth in “wild” nature, defined as hiking or playing in the woods, were more likely to be environmentalists as adults, those who had been exposed to “domesticated” nature — defined as visits to parks, picking flowers, planting seeds, or tending to gardens — were not. Given the unlikelihood of every child having a “wild” nature experience, researchers are on the hunt for other ways to cultivate environmentally responsible behavior.

The latest work with virtual reality builds upon roughly half a century of behavioral studies that indicate humans’ willingness to shift behavior is directly correlated to our sense of control.

Climate change, like many large-scale environmental issues, is a problem over which few people feel they have a direct impact — for better or worse. As researchers Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn and Jeremy Bailenson wrote in a forthcoming paper in the journal Computers and Human Behavior, individual actions taken at a micro-scale, like failing to recycle paper or support certain policies, can contribute over time to negative environmental consequences, like deforestation, which in turn affects climate trends over many years. But the long time frames and vast scale create a dangerous disconnect. While 97 percent of peer-reviewed scientific research points to human activities as a primary contributor to climate change, only half of Americans see the link.

Proponents of virtual reality think it could help drive home the impacts of climate change and make people feel empowered to do something about it. “When individuals feel that their behaviors directly influence the well-being of the environment, they are more likely to be concerned about and actively care for the environment,” Ahn and Bailenson wrote.

Bailenson, a cognitive psychologist and founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, sees particular value in virtual reality related to climate change because it allows for a combination of real experience with boundless possibilities: The brain treats the virtual experience as real but, at the same time, knows that anything is possible in the simulation.

“One can viscerally experience disparate futures and get firsthand experience about the consequences of human behavior,” Bailenson said.

Stanford’s tree-cutting simulation



Teacher Tech

Researchers working on both virtual and augmented reality — in which mobile apps on either smartphones or tablets overlay information on reality — are increasingly experimenting with these technologies as learning tools. Multiple universities, including Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, are piloting the use of these augmented and virtual reality in middle and high schools. And museums, which enjoy more flexibility, operating outside the realm of curricula requirements and test scores, have wholeheartedly embraced the idea. Science museums and zoos on both coasts are using the technology in exhibits and deploying augmented reality apps that visitors can use on their phones or on museum-issue mobile devices to learn more about what they’re seeing.

“Understanding complicated issues like climate change requires a shift in perspective in terms of how you’re willing to see the problem,” said Amy Kamarainen, PhD, co-director of Harvard’s EcoMOBILE project. “We’re trying to do that by immersing kids in environments that have elements similar to real-world systems but are somewhat simplified to meet kids where they are. We put them in complex worlds but give them the tools to be able to unpack what’s happening.”

EcoMUVE’s pond interface

EcoMUVE, a multi-user, desktop computer-based virtual environment that features a simulated pond ecosystem, was developed by Harvard University to teach students basic biological processes like photosynthesis and decomposition as well as systems thinking about complex environmental issues. The Harvard team recently launched EcoMOBILE, a corresponding augmented reality app, which enables students to take the EcoMUVE experience with them, collect data out in the field, and “see” what’s going on below the surface and what happened in an ecosystem in the past. EcoMUVE was initially piloted in schools in Massachusetts and New York, but is now available for download by any school, and is being used across the United States and in other countries as well, including India and Mexico. EcoMOBIL is currently being piloted at schools in Massachusetts and New York.
CCAd4A handful of Massachusetts high schools have also piloted an MIT-developed augmented reality app called Time Lapse 2100, which requires users to set various policies that would affect the environment and then shows them what would happen if those policies were enacted. This fall, Bay Area schools will be pilot-testing Stanford’s Coral Reef, a virtual reality game in which participants become a piece of coral in a reef affected by ocean acidification. All three universities are also working with museums and science learning centers to deploy their technology in learning experiences.

“I was initially not sold on the idea of augmented reality,” said cognitive scientist Tina Grotzer, a professor in Harvard’s graduate school of education and the co-principal investigator for both the EcoMUVE and EcoMobile projects. Grotzer spent several years as a teacher herself before heading to Harvard to research how kids learn, particularly how they learn science. Grotzer said it was the technology’s potential to drive home environmental science lessons that won her over. “With physics, you can do an experiment, and kids can see instantly what you’re talking about. With environmental science, we tried to do a decomposition experiment, but you set the experiment up and then 12 weeks later something happens. By then the kids have completely lost interest.”

That’s because it’s difficult for kids to grasp anything that they cannot immediately see, Grotzer explained. Augmented reality enables teachers to extend that vision, or what scholars call an attentional frame, and make the unseen more tangible. For example, teachers take kids to a nearby pond and use EcoMOBILE to show them how the town dumped garbage there 60 years ago and nearly filled in what is today a pristine, natural pond. The app shows them how plants around the pond are turning sunlight into energy and reveals what microscopic pond life is doing under the water’s surface. It also walks them through the real-world collection of water samples, which it helps them to analyze.

Harvard’s EcoMOBILE app includes a “submarine” tool, which lets students examine microscopic pond life, helping them to understand that ecosystems involve non-obvious causes hard to detect with the naked eye.

“I’ve tagged along on these field trips and have seen how the technology actually immerses them more in the surroundings, rather than distracting them,” Grotzer said. Students use smartphones to take photographs and notes, documenting what they’re seeing: the clarity of the pond water, the weather, descriptions of their samples, different species of bugs and birds. And they can learn at their own pace too. “On a regular field trip, if a student had a question they’d have to leave that moment that spurred the question and go ask the teacher,” Grotzer said. “The teacher would be facilitating the needs of 30 kids. This way they can find the answer themselves and stay in the moment, stay engaged with what they’re looking at.”

In Stanford’s Coral Reef  students embody a tall piece of purple coral off the coast of Italy, near Ischia. Over the course of a 14-minute lesson,  they are taken through the experience of being coral in a body of water affected by ocean acidification. At first, the surrounding ocean is filled with an abundance of sea life. Waves around the reef are simulated by floor vibrations and ocean sounds. A lab technician periodically touches the participant with a stick in synchronized motions to coincide with what he sees as a fishing net hitting the reef. Then acidification sets in. Sea life begins to die off all around. The reef begins to lose its color, as does the piece of coral the participant has embodied.

Bailenson and his team have tested the simulation with college students and shown that it resulted in students caring more about what is happening to coral reefs. The team followed those participants over weeks, compared them with a group that had simply watched a video about how ocean acidification affects coral reefs, and found the change in attitude catalyzed by the virtual reality experience lasted longer than any shifts stirred by the video.

Smartphones for All

Whether schools opt for an augmented reality tablet app that leads students around the schoolyard pointing out, say, the the biological process at work in the compost pile, or a landscape-based smartphone app (like EcoMOBILE or Time Lapse 2100) for use on a field trip, or a desktop experience (like EcoMUVE) that can be used in the school’s computer lab they face steep tab for both hardware and software. Hardware for virtual reality simulations remains cost prohibitive for most schools, although costs are coming down: virtual headsets like the Oculus Rift now cost consumers $350. A school could potentially purchase a few headsets for a multiuser virtual reality game that four students could play at a time while the rest of the class engages with an augmented reality component on desktops nearby.

Still, despite an increasing variety of options and declining prices, schools looking to put these technologies to use in the classroom face a number of challenges.

If virtual and augmented reality are to have a measurable impact on how future generations understand and approach climate change, access across all socioeconomic classes will be key. Kamarainen said that in some higher-income school districts students could use their own devices.

In many school districts around the country, however, the majority of students do not have smartphones. Mobile phone company Kajeet has begun to address this issue by offering schools data packages that provide WiFi with school-managed filtering so they can set time limits for usage, enabling kids to take home school-provided tablets for only school-related work.

In the schools where Kamarainen works, Harvard provides smartphones to students for use on field trips and pays for Kajeet’s WiFi and data service (two to three cents per megabyte per device). The Harvard apps work on both smartphones and tablets, so it’s feasible that any of the thousands of U.S. schools that have either purchased or been awarded tablets over the past two years could sign up with Kajeet to enable the use of these apps on and off campus. Industry analysts estimate that U.S. schools will purchase an additional 3.5 million tablets by the end of 2014, and multiple companies, including Intel, AT&T, Fox, and Qualcomm have launched nonprofit initiatives to dole out tablets in schools.


The Principal’s Office

Even if companies like Kajeet succeed in making hardware more affordable for schools, virtual and augmented reality developers still face a long road to see their programs widely adopted in education. Logistical challenges include securing funding for pilot tests, budgeting funds to purchase new technology, training staff, and winning buy-in from parents, teachers, and administrators.

“There are clashes all the time between the reality of what goes on in a classroom and what researchers would like to see happen in a classroom,” said Paul Olson, an outreach specialist at the Games Learning Society, or GLS, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who taught seventh grade for more than three decades. He said that a lot of his time these days is spent explaining to researchers what life is like “in the trenches” and encouraging teachers to experiment with GLS games to motivate those students who “really don’t respond to a lecture or a chapter in a book but are all over programming something.”

This is where museums incorporating these technologies might fill some gaps. “A museum has the freedom to step outside the rigid guidelines and requirements that schools are held to,” said Dan Wempa, vice president of external affairs for the New York Hall of Science in Queens, which sees roughly 1,200 students per day on field trips during the school year. The museum’s latest exhibit Connected Worlds, created with input from Kamarainen, will immerse visitors in a digital, interactive world that shows how their actions affect the environment. In one part of the exhibit, visitors add water to the environment and a plant flourishes. In another, they add too much and cause flooding. Taken together, the exhibit puts nature into fast forward to help students see how their individual and communal actions hurt or sustain plant and animal life, clean water, and fresh air.

“Students have a germ of knowing that water is important, but they say ‘I didn’t realize that it’s THAT important, and I didn’t realize that what I do over here affects someone way over there,’” Wempa said.


“I’m not keen on my kids being immersed in this type of technology,” said Megy Karydes, a marketing consultant and mother of two (ages 7 and 9) in Chicago. “We very much limit our kids’ electronics exposure because I don’t want them addicted. On the other hand, I realize they need to be aware of what’s going on in the world too. I balance it, but if I had to err on the side of caution, I’d rather we go hiking than have them staring at a screen.”

Karydes’ concerns are common among parents. “There are two ways that parents tend to look at these games,” said Eric Klopfer, who directs MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program, developed Time Lapse 2100, and has been researching the use of augmented reality in education since 2009. “One is, ‘Great. My kid is outside, but he still has the phone in his hand,’ and the other is that the mobile device and the game are actually getting their kid outside.”

Kamarainen and Grotzer have also heard parental concerns about technology interrupting kids’ experience of nature, and they have worked hard to design games that they feel complement a relationship with nature rather than detract from it.

The EcoMOBILE pilot has included around 1,000 students so far, and Kamarainen said they consistently talk about how the augmented reality piece helps them to see things going on in their communities that they never paid attention to before. “They say this helps open their eyes about the environment that’s around them,” Kamarainen said. “They’re more aware and conscious of it, and they’re paying closer attention to the natural world.”

Ultimately, proponents say that these games not only complement and improve students’ relationship with nature but also teach them how to think systematically and to see their own roles in harming or improving their world.

“The younger kids say, ‘I get to create a world!’” Wempa said, “and the older kids say, ‘I like this because it felt like I was in control and, as a kid, I’m never in control of anything.’ That carries over. They understand that actions have consequences and that they can affect outcomes.”

 **Header image by Alba Soler, used under a Creative Commons license.

This article was produced by Climate Confidential and released for re-use under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


A New Playbook for Urban Rivers

As climate change makes traditional water resources less reliable, a growing number of communities are seeking to restore urban rivers after centuries of pollution and abuse. The first story in our Play series examines how riverside towns are recalibrating the balance of human and wildlife needs in their waterways. Increasingly, they’re using technology to build recreation into restored rivers — because when local residents use their river, they tend to care about its health.

Dam spillway in Bend

More than 150 years ago, the Deschutes River in central Oregon teemed with trout and provided a pristine aquatic highway for humans. Then the Deschutes began to decline. Dams built to divert water for farming and growing towns sapped its energy and changed its looks. When a long-defunct dam in Bend began to cause injuries and even deaths to boaters, the local residents took on an ambitious, $7.3 million effort to create a safe passage for humans and fish.

Urban river restoration has become increasingly popular during the last two decades, said Pierre Julien, a professor of hydraulic engineering and stream restoration at Colorado State University. Instead of taming rivers for flood control and industrial uses — two tactics that have led to serious habitat destruction and water pollution — the emphasis these days is more about healthy living, environmental protection, and waterfront redevelopment.

Reviving these waterways, whether by removing old dams, cultivating wetlands, or engineering rapids, requires careful navigation of what it means to co-exist in harmony with wildlife in places that will never return to their “natural” state. Planners must balance the need for public support — which recreational rapids can help win — with an evolving understanding of long-term environmental impacts.

Click here to read more about how local communities blend economic interest with fish protection in engineering their local rivers to serve both humans and wildlife.

Editor’s Note: The Play Issue

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but a sense of play often provides a creative spark. And there’s nothing like a high-stakes game to inspire dogged determination and heroic performance (just ask Tim Howard), which may be just the spirit we need to tackle climate change. For our July issue, the Climate Confidential team will explore environmental challenges and promising solutions through the lens of competition, games, and play.


United States goalkeeper Tim Howard won the admiration of many Americans this week with his record-setting 16 saves in a World Cup match. He blocked and and dove and punched and blocked again. Soccer, football, whatever you want to call it, it’s just a game, sure. But there was something inspiring about the doggedness of Howard’s performance against the Red Devils of Belgium.

If this is play, imagine what such determination to do the impossible can accomplish off the field. It’s the spirit we just might need to beat climate change and reverse the trends of human industry and behavior that are driving it. Continue reading

Rising Stakes in the Quest to Harness Ocean Power

Demands on the world’s oceans are growing: carry more ships, produce more food, absorb more carbon and more heat. Now population, energy, and climate trends are converging to raise the stakes for finally harvesting energy from the ocean at large scale. The final story in our Energy Shift series charts the choppy course ahead for sustainable marine power.


Years from now, a wave will throttle across the Pacific and hurl itself over a submerged rubbery sheet less than 100 feet from shore. The wave’s energy will force the sheet to rise and fall in the turbulent water, and these undulations will drive a crop of cylindrical pumps and generators arranged between the sheet and the sea floor. The result? Electrical power.

If all goes according to plan, this wave carpet, inspired by muddy seabeds, will be among an array of devices deployed in the coming decades to power growing coastal communities with ocean energy. Some will capture tides, others currents. Some, as Jules Verne imagined, will make use of temperature differences between sun-warmed surface waters and chilly depths. Waves, being widely distributed and predictable, hold particular promise. Continue reading

What Will It Take To Make Nuclear Energy Work?

It was the winter of “Snowmaggedon” in Boston, and MIT grad students Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie had just passed their qualifying exams in nuclear engineering. Suddenly, after months of nonstop test-prep work, they had the luxury of time. “We said, we’re no longer studying 16 hours a day,” Dewan recalled, “Let’s do something new and exciting!”

As February rolled by, the two began looking at ways to bring to market different types of nuclear reactors that could solve some of the problems—especially safety and waste issues — that have dogged the traditional light-water reactors that produce nearly all of the world’s nuclear power today. “We both considered ourselves to be environmentalists, and we felt that nuclear power is the best way to shift away from fossil fuels—and from coal in particular,” Dewan said.

Nuclear Wetlands The Enrico Fermi Nuclear Power plant on Lake Erie is one of 100 nuclear power plants currently operating in 31 U.S. states. Source: James Marvin Phelps

It’s an increasingly common perspective. “Nuclear is a non-carbon-emitting resource and it has a contribution to play in greenhouse gas emissions avoidance,” said Dan Lipman, executive director of policy development and supplier programs for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbyist group. He echoes the sentiments of many across the nuclear industry who are hoping that a growing sense of urgency on climate issues could reinvigorate the market for their technology.

Some climate scientists and high-profile nonprofits are beginning to agree. Renewable energy is gaining ground, but it still makes up just over 13 percent of the total U.S. electric power mix. Concerns about resource intermittency, immature storage technologies, grid reliability, and land use haunt faster growth scenarios. As a result, achieving even the moderate carbon emissions reductions—pegged to a 30 percent reduction over 2005 levels by 2030—outlined by the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan [pdf] is expected to require both the development of new nuclear plants and extended lifespans for those that were built as far back as the 1970s.

Critics are quick to refute these claims, citing cost, safety, waste management, and time-to-market as major barriers to the large-scale adoption of nuclear energy for baseload grid power. But are these truly insurmountable challenges? If nuclear is to play a significant role in a low-carbon energy future what will it take to make that happen? Continue reading

Sugar in the Gas Tank

We love to talk about bright shiny objects like electric vehicles, but the internal combustion engine will remain in the mix for a long time to come. The transportation sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, so as we report this month on the shift to new energy sources, we also take stock of the country’s effort to replace gasoline with biofuel.

Inside corn stover, a building block for biofuel.

Inside corn stover, a building block for biofuel.

As we were developing this story, we could not help but notice some parallels between algae-based biofuel, which a few of us have written quite a bit about in the past, and the development of cellulosic biofuels. Back around 2008 the buzz around algae fuels was intense and so, perhaps, was the hype.

“Every entrepreneur with a pond in their backyard said they could make biofuel from algae,” Lux Research’s Soare told me during our interview for this story. “But to go from a pond to a gallon of fuel is very expensive.”

In terms of energy density and cost, petroleum is simply very hard to beat. But that does not mean forward-looking companies, whether they’re into algae or have hung their hopes on cellulose, are giving up. Instead, they’re looking for ways to build a foundation in biofuels that might surprise you. (Hint: It has a lot to do with beauty products.)

To get the full scoop, check out the full story here.

Feeling a little rusty on the science behind biofuels? Here’s a list of terms you’ll want to know: Continue reading

Batteries Included

California’s recent passage of the world’s first energy storage mandate could be the tipping point for this versatile smart grid tool. Expanding storage will also help grow the percentage of energy we get from wind and solar energy. Entrepreneurs and governments are teaming up to conduct field tests, bring down costs, improve efficiency, ensure safety, and facilitate access to the grid and market. Read more here, and check out the infographic below for a snapshot of what’s happening in the U.S. storage market.




Editor’s Note: The Energy Shift Issue


Something monumental happened this week: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. Although there is pushback from coal-producing states and critics say the rule doesn’t go far enough, this first-ever attempt to lower carbon pollution from the largest source in the country is a bold move to deal with climate change.

I’m happy to see President Obama finally taking a big step to lower the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, especially when many of his early supporters thought he failed to deliver on his promise to push for policies during his first term to cut emissions.

The timing of the EPA’s proposed rule couldn’t be better for us here at Climate Confidential. We’ve been working on an energy issue for June that will lay out some of the promising technologies and challenges of moving away from producing fuels and electricity using dirty fossil fuels. Continue reading

Smart Citizens, Armed with Sensors


On an average day in 1998, statistician David Fairley was walking up a busy San Francisco street to pick up his son from preschool. Traffic was heavy, and halfway to the school, he started to feel weak and dazed.

“Actually, a homeless guy saw me and helped me to the school,” Fairley said. “[People at the school] had me lie down for a bit.”

Fairley felt better after a rest, but the school administrators insisted he go to the hospital. On the way there, he had a heart attack.

Continue reading