Information Technology

SimQuabbin Project

Faculty: Professors Jan Dizard, Tanya Leise, Ethan Clotfelter, and Karena McKinney
Staff: Scott Payne, Bridget Dahill, Andy Anderson
Students: Greg Leslie '10, Mark Santolucito '13, Channing Jones '09
Technology Used: Unity3D game engine

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SimQuabbin begins with Geographic Information Systems data to render to scale a four square kilometer section of the Quabbin Reservoir management area. As a tightly controlled watershed that provides the drinking water to the greater Boston area, the Quabbin Reservoir has been a focus of research for over four decades.  Scattered throughout the Quabbin management area are 32 meter square continuous forest inventory (CFI) plots. Since the 1960s, foresters working for the Department of Conservation and Recreation have been generating data for each of these plots on the number and types of tree species, soil quality and other factors thought to have potential impact on the water quality of the Quabbin Reservoir.

SimQuabbin uses forestry, soil, precipitation, temperature, and sun exposure data to render the landscape. The SimQuabbin terrain is geo-referenced enabling students to access the GPS coordinates of the corresponding point in the actual Quabbin for any location in the virtual world. The trees and understory vegetation data for each 32 square meter section are stored in a relational database. Professor Tanya Leise and her students have used these data to develop an agent-based model of the ecosystem that governs interactions between plant and animal species in the SimQuabbin prototype.

There will be a total of ten worlds in each instance of SimQuabbin, one for each decade, beginning in 1960 and ending in 2050. Each sector of the SimQuabbin world has a ranger station and park ranger avatar who gives out tasks called "quests" for students to solve. 

Quests will take the form of a problem in the ecosystem the students are recruited to help solve. For instance, a park ranger could say, "Some of the hemlock trees appear to be dying. Can you figure out what is causing this?" Students will first need to locate hemlock trees (in an earlier, lower level quest, they will have learned how to identify different tree species) and examine them to discover there are little white insects on the underside of the needles. Using internal resources in SimQuabbin and the Web (i.e. Wikipedia), students will need to figure out that this pest is the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA). They will do some research on the HWA, learning about the region of the United States it is impacting and what has been done to try to stop its spread (e.g. insecticides, biological control agents, logging). Using the data visualization and forecasting tool located in each ranger station, students can formulate and test hypotheses about the long-term effects a loss of hemlock trees would have on the health of the forest. Based on these analyses, each student group will formulate a plan for stemming the spread of this invasive species and present it to the class. A consensus will be reached by the class on the best measures to counter the HWA and this approach will be implemented through collective action. For instance, if the students decide that all hemlock trees should be treated with insecticides, then the students will need to find every hemlock in SimQuabbin and inoculate it. After they have implemented their solution, the students can travel forward in time via the "time machine" located in each ranger station to see first-hand the effects of their choices on the SimQuabbin ecosystem and the water quality of the Quabbin Reservoir.