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Virtual Forest Initiative

Virtual Forest Initiative Partner(s): Black Rock Forest Consortium

Access: Open to all
Revised: March 2013
Released: May 2009


The Virtual Forest Initiative provides a technological framework to support and enhance research, education, and community activities at Black Rock Forest. The framework provides searchable, downloadable forest assets and resources for access, presentation, and use by scientists, educators, and community members.

As part of the larger Virtual Forest Initiative, CCNMTL developed a suite of web-based learning tools that utilizes Black Rock Forest's rich archive of scientific records such as climate field station and tree data. Used in the Earth and Environmental Sciences courses at Columbia University and Barnard College, the project gives students an unprecedented opportunity to utilize real data for comparative analysis.

In 2011, Black Rock Forest and CCNMTL were awarded a $500,000 grant from the Toyota USA Foundation to develop two educational modules for the Virtual Forest Initiative - on chemistry and biology - to teach environmental science in New York City middle and high schools. The grant also supports class field trips to the Forest, where students can experience the forest first-hand and apply what they have learned from the online modules.

Black Rock Forest is located 50 miles north of New York City in the Hudson Highlands.

Project Details

CCNMTL’s Virtual Forest Initiative is building innovative connections to the rich array of research, education, and community activities taking place at Columbia’s shared field station at the Black Rock Forest. An important component of this project is making real data collected from the forest more readily available to students as they study aspects of the forest.

Over the years the Black Rock Forest Consortium has compiled a vast array of abiotic and biotic data, some of it ranging back to the 1930s. The forest’s environmental monitoring network tracks information like air and soil temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, precipitation, barometric pressure, and solar radiation. Data on plants in the forest has charted long-term tree growth, leaf volume, photosynthesis, and tree respiration; animal data includes species lists and individual species information. The forest has also collected a large number of aerial images and maps. All this information has been collected by forest staff, automated instrumentation, and visiting scientists.

Early educational modules developed by CCNMTL are giving students direct access to this source information as they study ecological processes. For example, a Forest Sampling Simulator developed with Professor Hilary Callahan (Biological Sciences, Barnard College) draws from tree data gathered over selected years in one of the forest’s long term plots. Drawing from actual measurements and coordinates, Callahan’s students practice sampling methodology with a model that closely approximates the actual experience of being in the forest.

Two other modules, the Forest Tree Respiration and the Photosynthesis Module, allow students studying with Professor Kevin Griffin (Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University) to analyze how trees are affected by climate change and species distribution in the forest. For this module, CCNMTL is drawing on 30 years of Black Rock Forest temperature data and solar radiation data, as well as 70 years of species data from long term plots. Interactive maps allow students to select datasets by year and more efficiently analyze trends and interdependencies.

To facilitate the links between such analysis applications and actual forest data, CCNMTL is partnering with Columbia University’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship (CDRS). CDRS is making a number of data management recommendations and building a prototype data repository that will allow live data to more easily flow through educational and research applications in the Virtual Forest Initiative.

CCNMTL and CDRS are also working on a ‘contribution channel’ that will allow data gathered by students in the forest to flow into Black Rock’s data repository. This contribution channel will allow CCNMTL to work with faculty partners and forest staff to develop educational activities that will not only draw from Black Rock’s rich data archive, but add to it as well, benefitting future students and researchers.

Related news:
May-2014: Video: Virtual Forest Tools Enhance Science Learning and Research
May-2013: With Virtual Forest Initiative, NYC Students Become Citizen Scientists
Mar-2013: Connecting NYC Students to the Forest, Virtual and Real
Mar-2011: Toyota Foundation Grant Enhances Science at Harlem HS
Aug-2010: Virtual Forest Initiative Featured at the Ecological Society of America Meeting
Mar-2010: Barnard Students Engage with New Virtual Forest Module
Jul-2009: Virtual Forest Initiative Modules Piloted at Columbia University
Jan-2009: CCNMTL Develops Educational Materials and Technologies for the Virtual Forest Initiative