Richard Huber, Curricular Studies, University of North Carolina,



Using Internet based data visualization tools (DVT’s) is an excellent way to facilitate inquiry instruction.  This paper will introduce the reader to several representative DVT’s from Southeast North Carolina.  Since environmental data sources exist for each region of the country, this paper will serve as a guide for educators interested in developing a DVT using data from their regions. 





Although Internet-based resources have already begun to revolutionize the ways in which we teach science, some of the Internet’s most promising resources for facilitating inquiry-based science instruction are just now beginning to be tapped.  Specifically, new uses of Java applet based technology are opening up vast databases of environmental science data.  When coupled with educationally sound and developmentally appropriate applet-based data visualization tools (DVT’s), these databases provide a truly unprecedented gold mine of resources for promoting inquiry-based instruction in the areas of Oceanography, Environmental Studies and Earth Sciences.  In response to the need for educationally valid tools to access these online databases, science educators at the University of Minnesota Duluth and University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) have developed data driven DVT’s for the Cape Fear River in Southeast North Carolina (River Run), near shore buoys off the coast of North Carolina (River View), NOAA buoy data from around the world (Ocean View) and Northern Minnesota lakes and rivers (Water on the Web).  This paper, in addition to demonstrating the tremendous utility of DVT’s  for inquiry instruction,  will serve as guide for other educators interested in developing DVT’s for their regions. 


Background and Importance

Although the science education community has recognized the value and importance of inquiry-based instruction for decades, the goal of inquiry-based instruction remains elusive.  To a large part, inquiry is thwarted by (1) entrenched structures within the educational system that work against implementation of inquiry-based teaching and (2) a lack of resources to facilitate teachers’ efforts, especially novice teachers, to use inquiry.  The recognized value of inquiry-based instruction and the potency of these barriers are well documented (Comeaux & Huber, 2001, Crawford, 1999; Huber, 2003; Huber, 2002; Huber & Moore, 2001a; Huber & Moore 2001b; Huber & Moore, 2000; Lederman & Niess, 1998; Moore & Huber, 2001a; National Research Council [NRC] 1996; National Science Teachers Association [NSTA] 1998; Wong, 1998; Wong & Wong, 1998).  In fact, as of 1996, the National Science Education Standards stated that inquiry-based instruction was literally impossible to achieve in many American schools—in the absence of enormous pre-requisite reforms at all levels of the K-12 educational system.  These same Standards, however, more optimistically call upon the educational community to move forward implementing inquiry whenever and however possible, and in the process, creating the “pathways to reform” needed to implement the vision of inquiry-based instruction championed by the Standards.  Science educators are recognizing the unlimited potential of the Internet as both an exquisite tool for facilitating inquiry-based instruction and for creating pathways to educational reform (Alibrandi, 1998; Huber, 2003; Huber 2002; Huber & Harriett, 1998; Huber & Moore, 2002; Huber & Moore, 2001a; Moore & Huber, 2001b; Warlick, 1998; Watson, 1999).

Among the most promising of Internet utilities in this respect are those that employ Java applets that allow users to generate custom-made graphical displays of the data found in large relevant databases, such as those compiled as a result of large-scale long-term environmental monitoring studies.  The best of these utilities tap into fascinating databases and allow students to readily generate easily understood meaningful graphical displays of the data.  For example, one of the DVT’s within River Run ( ) provides data and utilities for exploring data on the water quality of the Cape Fear River from 1995 to 2003 ( .  During these years this drainage basin experienced a major poultry farm spill, several ruptures of hog waste lagoons, five hurricanes, and a once-in-500-years-flood.  River Run offers several choices for interactive data displays including the Geographic Information Service (GIS) and Data Visualization Tools (DVT) for the Cape Fear River, the New River and the Northeast Cape Fear River. GIS is a computer utility for mapping and analyzing geographic locations and numerical data of events that occurred at these places. This tool gives the user the power to link databases and maps to create dynamic displays.  The DVT’s allow students to generate animated multivariate line graphs and color-coded backgrounds to display river water quality data.  When using these tools to explore this exceptionally interesting water quality data, conspicuous spikes in line graphs and flashes of color on the data visualization tool pop up frequently.  For example, Figure 1 shows a frame from a sequence of graphs displayed using the River Run DVT .  Users encountering this display cannot help but notice some of the anomalies in the data, which happen to be consequences of a failure of a sewage treatment plant during a hurricane.  These anomalies invite students to stop the animations, form hypotheses, reset parameters, and rerun the graph animations to test their hypotheses.  In other words, the interactive graphics invite the students into inquiry.



Figure 1.  Impact of Hurricane Bonnie on the Cape Fear River.


These Internet resources capitalize on significant resources that, until recently, have been readily available but not in a useful form for education purposes.  Specifically, vast databases housing the data compiled by various environmental monitoring programs have been accessible via the Internet for some time.  However, although the robust data within these databases are ideally suited to student inquiries, the presentation of the data has not been up to the task of supporting student inquiry.  Typically the data is accessible only as matrix arrays of numbers on a spread sheet.  Most students and many teachers have neither the expertise to manipulate such oceans of numbers nor the conceptual framework to visualize relationships within the numbers needed to generate inferences and hypothesis.  Thus, rather than serving as invitations to inquiry and avenues to understanding, the data sets may do little more than confuse and intimidate.  However, when coupled with appropriate data visualization tools, these vast databases become ideal resources for inquiry-based science education activities.

The value of these Internet utilities goes far beyond merely providing a straightforward and engaging mechanism for facilitating students in learning how to do scientific inquiry.  The utilities are extremely effective tools for teaching science content, and these utilities have been used with substantial success to teach science content at middle school through college graduate courses.  Also, oceanographers and other environmental science researchers become genuinely excited over discoveries the utilities permitted them to make.  Further, these utilities offer the promise of promoting computer and graphic literacy among students, and they may very well form the foundation for much needed improved online assessment tools (Huber & Moore, 2002; Huber & Moore, 2001b; Moore & Huber, 2001b; Watson, 1999). 

The application of Java applet technology to online environmental databases not only promises to change the way we teach science, but to change the way environmental regulatory agencies interact with citizens.  Far too often, agencies’ efforts to involve citizens in environmental management decision-making processes are thwarted by the scale and complexities of the issues and data associated with proposed regulatory actions.  For example, the New River Round Table in Jacksonville, North Carolina, when faced with the task of addressing the water quality of the New River flowing through the center of town, found a dizzying array of data from the State Department of Water Quality, the City of Jacksonville and the Marine Corps Base. This data, while available to the general public, was difficult if not impossible to use since it included diverse parameters, collected at different locations and on different dates by three separate agencies.  At the request of the New River Round Table UNCW researchers developed the New River DVT ( ). By reducing the size of the windows and running the DVT’s  from any two data sources, the user can easily compare similar locations, dates and parameters.  (See Figure 2)



Figure 2.  Comparing data from two different data sources.



Examples of Internet sites developed that use such data visualization tools to facilitate inquiry include:

·      River Run ( allows students to interact with data from monitoring programs of the Cape Fear River System and three different data sources for the New River in Southeast North Carolina

·      River View ( uses river plume data from near shore buoys off the coast of North Carolina.

·      Ocean View ( taps into NOAA buoy data from around the world.

·      Water on the Web uses remote underwater sampling of lakes in Minnesota


As demonstrated in this work with huge data bases and a broad range of students (including middle school students), the interactive graphs generated by these applets can be used to allow the general public to meaningfully study complex environmental issues using large databases.  It seems very likely that it is only a matter of time before this technology spills out from its origins in education to a much broader range of applications. 





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