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Pixie Awards Nominates Why Files Interactives

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Contacts: Tom Whittaker, 608-262-2759

MADISON, WI, April 9, 2004—Sometimes in the world of computer software, less is more. This idea has paid off for Steve Ackerman and Tom Whittaker of the Space Science and Engineering Center, who were recently nominated for a Pixie Award, for “Web design featuring motion,” for their contribution to Why Files Interactives on the Why Files Web site. Designer Susan Medaris of the Why Files staff is also nominated. The Pixie Awards honor exceptional online and broadband motion picture productions. Pixie Awards are thought of by many as the Internet’s equivalent to the Academy Awards.

Whittaker, a computer program developer for SSEC’s Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), believes the key to their success is simplicity. Their philosophy is to create a highly interactive applet, a small computer application written in the Java computer software language that gives a Web site interactive capabilities, while using a minimum number of parameters. This simplicity can make a complex topic like tornado formation easier to understand.

Ackerman, who directs CIMSS, and Whittaker created four interactive, weather-related Java applets for the Why Files, a science Web magazine produced at UW–Madison. One applet allows the user to adjust the funnel width and pressure difference of a tornado and then simulates the tornado accordingly. The tornado whips through the town, knocking over trees, lifting a cow off the ground and thrashing a Bucky Badger billboard. Another applet that demonstrates snowflake formation instructs users to click on different temperature zones within a cloud to see how the temperature affects formation. Intricate, and accurate, snowflakes grow and change with every click of the mouse.

Whittaker said the applets are designed to make learning about weather concepts fun and interactive. It is often easier to teach abstract weather concepts with an interactive demonstration than by reading about it in a book.

The Why Files applets are not the only applet project that Ackerman and Whittaker have completed. About four years ago, they created a Web site called Weather Wise, dedicated to “highly interactive teaching and training aids.” The site features numerous applets designed to help educators teach weather-related concepts to students in fourth grade and up. Ackerman and Whittaker’s philosophy for Weather Wise is to create interactive Web-based applets that can be integrated into curricula related to atmospheric science.

One applet that is particularly useful in a classroom setting simulates the conditions that are necessary for a thunderstorm to form, by allowing the user to change the pressure and temperature on a graph. When favorable conditions occur, a thunderstorm forms. Teachers can use the applet in any way that fits their specific needs. A fifth grade teacher may simply use the applet to show that temperature and pressure are factors that affect thunderstorms. Alternately, a high school teacher may have students calculate the exact conditions that are necessary for a thunderstorm to form using the applet.

As for the Pixie Award, Whittaker said he is “surprised because it [the Java applet] is not a traditional motion picture, but that is a good thing because it is opening up the scope for awards.” The winners will be announced in early September 2004 by the Directors Board Awards for Excellence in Broadband Motion Pixure Production in Hollywood.

--Alexis Johnson

4-9-04

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9 April 2004 TG