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Flash of Inspiration: NMSU Animation Wins National NSF Competition

LAS CRUCES - A New Mexico State University computer animation that makes plant biology come alive was among nine winners in the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

An interactive animation from New Mexico State University won in the National Science Foundation's 2005 Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. The animation NMSU's agricultural communications department created for a plant science professor is available online to help classes and gardeners around the world understand transpiration, water movement through plants. (09/29/2005) Courtesy Photo from Matt Byrnes

The online Flash animation, "Transpiration: Water Movement through Plants," was honored in the interactive media category. Winning entries appear in the Sept. 23 issue of Science and are listed on the National Science Foundation Web site at http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/scivis/index.jsp?id=win2005.

Tracy Sterling, an NMSU weed science professor, wanted a visual, interactive tool to help her students in plant physiology, plant biochemistry and weed science. Matt Byrnes of NMSU's agricultural communications department created the animation, which earned a silver award for interactive multimedia and Web graphics from the International Association for Communication Excellence earlier this year.

"I'm pleased about the NSF award because it recognizes that students need to be given alternative tools to learn complicated information," Sterling said. "Science teachers will have a greater impact if they help their students learn to think like scientists."

The interactive model helps students understand why transpiration is vital to plants' survival. Students can magnify plant parts and follow water movement from the soil through the plant into the atmosphere. They can experiment to see where and how fast water molecules move, depending on which toggle switches they click.

College and high school students, journalists, business people, farmers and gardeners around the world can use the transpiration module. It's among online lessons on plant genetics and biochemistry in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Croptechnology database at http://croptechnology.unl.edu. The transpiration lesson and many others in the library have been translated into Spanish by bilingual scientists, Sterling said.

The animation is part of a larger lesson that includes learning objectives, in-depth text and figures, a hyperlinked glossary and a question bank for students to test their knowledge. That project was funded by a 2004 grant from the American Distance Education Consortium.

The low-bandwidth animation loads and plays quickly on both Windows and Macintosh computers, Sterling said. The transpiration model was also featured in the 2005 Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, Volume 35.