Success Story

NOAA’s Science On a Sphere® Provides Educational Technology for All Ages


Science On a Sphere® (SOS) is a room-sized global display system that uses computers and video projectors to display planetary data onto a gleaming, six-foot-diameter carbon-fiber sphere, analogous to a giant animated globe.

Suspended from invisible wires in a darkened “theater,” the sphere looks like a rotating Earth as seen from outer space. The software to run SOS is written and maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The system comes preprogrammed with over 300 datasets that show the Earth’s land, oceans, and atmosphere, to name just a few. SOS was initially developed as a way to explore environmental data using new visualization techniques.

It quickly became obvious that when combined with narration and supporting educational material, SOS becomes a unique and powerful teaching tool. With this in mind, researchers at NOAA developed SOS as an educational tool to help illustrate Earth System science to people of all ages. SOS is currently installed in over 60 laboratories, universities, research centers, science centers, science museums and aquariums.

Enthusiasm for SOS continues to grow as onlookers are drawn into engaging animations of swirling hurricanes, devastating tsunamis and earthquakes, as well as other weather phenomena. This wow factor fosters collaboration with the sites that have installed SOS and promotes an ideal partnership between these sites and NOAA. NOAA provides data and scientific expertise, while the partners provide a public forum for dissemination of ideas and audience-appropriate presentations.

Over the past several years, distributorships for further promotion of SOS have been established.

Currently, six distributorships have been developed: three in the U.S. and three internationally. This increases the expansion of the technology, furthers the economic value of the organizations involved in the distributorship, and provides the potential for increased employment.

Dr. Alexander MacDonald developed an early prototype of SOS in 1995, followed by an earnest effort to develop a complete system beginning in 2000. A patent was awarded to NOAA for SOS in August 2005. SOS is constantly evolving as technology progresses.

The original SOS, for example, used eight computers and two spares, the second version used four computers and one spare, and the current system uses just one computer and one spare. The control device for SOS has also evolved over time from using a keyboard, to a radio-frequency television remote control, to currently a Bluetooth Wii remote control.

In October 2002, an early version of SOS was temporarily installed in a local Colorado middle school. The overwhelmingly positive reactions of the students and teachers indicated a successful future for SOS. Recognizing the value of SOS, the NOAA Office of Education created an Environmental Literacy grant competition in 2005 to fund the installation of SOS for science centers and museums.

Although this is an ongoing effort, many sites now choose to purchase SOS directly from NOAA. Many sites have developed expertise with the exhibit, and are now generating their own datasets, lesson plans, and supplemental technologies to add more versatility to the system. Through the collaborative SOS Users Network, all of these new developments are shared with the other SOS sites.

Because this is an evolving project, additional progress will always accompany SOS into the future. Three goals for the Science On a Sphere® project remain constant: to increase the ease of use, reduce the cost, and improve the educational capabilities.