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 Montpelier Magazine


The Whole World in Her Hands

Meghan Bauer Puts JMU on the Map

Meghan Bauer spent her senior year putting the world at your fingertips. The world of Digital Earth technology, to be specific.

In her hands, all those satellite images of the earth, once used for geodetic mapmaking, military and national security assessments, and other federal purposes, have gotten a second life. At the request of the vice president of the United States, no less.

Bauer, who graduated in May with a degree in integrated science and technology, coordinated JMU's efforts to become the first university-based DEVELOP Center in the nation. DEVELOP stands for Digital Earth Virtual Environment and Learning Outreach Project.

The goal of this student-created, student-run center is to bring the vast quantities of satellite-generated data out of storage and into the hands of educators, students, municipalities and the general public. Someday soon any enterprising soul can use the center's data to track or forecast commercial development, pollution, wildlife migration, population growth, deforestation, land use, traffic flow and almost anything else a world view has to offer.

As JMU's DEVELOP Center project manager, Bauer got the kind of "real world dosing" that goes far beyond the traditional education offered in a classroom. She tackled personnel issues, motivated and cajoled colleagues, beat the pavements for funding sources, made her case for Digital Earth and JMU in front of federal agencies, and met a dizzying schedule of deadlines - all while juggling other academic responsibilities.

That's exactly what ISAT professor Jim Barnes, who has guided the JMU DEVELOP project, had in mind.

"We want our students to learn from both coursework and real world experiences and be able to pull it all together," Barnes says. "They have the technical skills and the people skills."

The first tangible results of those blended efforts and skills came in December, when Bauer and her team of seven students presented their Digital Earth prototype project and the JMU DEVELOP web page at a Digital Earth meeting in Washington, D.C. In the audience were 16 federal agencies, including NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency. The prototype was a virtual reality, three-dimensional "fly-through" of a section of the Chesapeake Bay that visually tracked information like development, population growth and pollution sources over a number of years. The JMU team included Bauer, David Bottoms, Candace Roman, Regan Warren, Sean Curry and Ryan Bonistalli.

The JMU presentation caught those agencies by surprise. "People didn't really expect something like a real, working prototype," Bauer recalls.

"The presentation went well, better than well," Barnes confirms. So well, in fact, that it won JMU a place in the inner circle of the Digital Earth project. And rightfully so. Bauer and her student team were able to accomplish what 16 federal agencies had neither the time nor resources to do. They answered Vice President Al Gore's 1998 rallying call for a Digital Earth - "a multi-resolution, three-dimensional representation of the planet, into which we can embed vast qualities of geo-referenced data." Gore wanted a "user-friendly" way to get that information into the hands of the public and link the science and technology resources of the federal government with public education. Bauer and her student colleagues delivered.

"Now we're recognized by NASA, EPA and 15 other groups," Bauer says.

For Bauer, the December presentation was déjà vu. Last summer, a group of college and high school students led by Bauer and mentored by Mike Ruiz of NASA's Langley Research Center, brainstormed, researched, crafted and marketed DEVELOP. Their goal was to put remote-sensing technology into the hands of educators, students and the general public.

"We started from not even knowing what we were," Bauer recalls. Initially, the student team created and conducted surveys with high school teachers and administrators in the Langley-Tidewater area to see what educators wanted from a digital earth project. Armed with a meager budget and monumental enthusiasm, the team forged ahead, blended survey results with the perspective of faculty advisers, devised a plan, sold the federal agencies on it, and created DEVELOP and its accompanying web site. Along the way, Bauer was hit with everything from budget constraints to personnel issues and a lack of timely response for information. "I thought of the worst things that could happen, and they all happened," Bauer laughs.

But that's just that type of experience that both Ruiz and JMU's Barnes hope to offer students - a blend of coursework knowledge and "real-world" lessons to give JMU graduates a competitive edge. "Those accelerated real-world learning experiences pay huge dividends," Ruiz says. "At 21, Meghan is where I was at 25. Meghan exhibited capabilities to go beyond being a technical analyst. She demonstrated the ability to manage."

When summer ended, Bauer took those abilities to JMU, ready to lead the university's charge toward Digital Earth and the designation as the first university-based DEVELOP center in the country.

Now as an official member of the team, JMU's DEVELOP Center has grown to 25 students. Their projects include the Chesapeake Bay watershed prototype for the December presentation and a spin-off, a hydrological study of a five-mile section of the Shenandoah River in neighboring Page County. Using satellite imagery, the students are working on a 3-D terrain model that will show pollution density by type and help pinpoint pollution concentrations and sources.

They also have partnered with the city of Harrisonburg to create a 3-D virtual fly-through of Harrisonburg, designed as an economic development tool to entice high-tech firms to Harrisonburg. With Virginia Tech they are developing a computer interface that allows users to place buildings, roads, parking lots and other facilities on a computer-generated 3-D model of a tract of land before undertaking actual construction.

These and other projects in the discussion stages at JMU all require funding, and that's one more area in which Bauer and her team are getting plenty of experience. Spring meant a push for grant proposals. JMU received $50,000 worth of in-kind donations from Autometric Inc., a key partner in JMU's DEVELOP activities, and is negotiating with Technologies, N.A., of Switzerland for a $60,000 software donation. "We're frantically writing proposals for money, equipment, software, etc.," says Barnes.

A key component of the DEVELOP Center is educational outreach to bring the Digital Earth technology to public school classrooms throughout the region. JMU plans to offer this technology through the Internet, on CDs and eventually in a physical Digital Earth center located at JMU, where teachers and students can come to explore the technology and work on projects.

"This type of project brings together the best of what JMU does - undergraduate student research, hands-on learning through projects, internships, science and technology education and teacher education," says Jerry Benson, interim dean of the College of Integrated Science and Technology. "I think the project is a nice statement about the tie between the past and the future of the university. That is the continuing commitment to preparing future teachers of the highest quality melding with advances in science and technology."

For Bauer, her summers at Langley and her DEVELOP Center project management have opened new career vistas. "The experience has prepared me for anything," Bauer says. "It has prepared me for both the business and science technology aspects. Before I wasn't prepared to speak to heads of companies and agencies and to go out on my own to meet people and try to sell them on Digital Earth. Now I'm not intimidated."

By Margie Shetterly

Photos by DeeDee Elliott and Courtesy of Jim Barnes