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Diving into a digital app

by Richard Hoops
Johanna Holm dives at Red Rock, just off Catalina Island, near the Wrigley Marine Science Center. (Photo/Karla Heidelberg)
Johanna Holm dives at Red Rock, just off Catalina Island, near the Wrigley Marine Science Center. (Photo/Karla Heidelberg)

A scientific diver, Johanna Holm of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Scienes has become a “transmedia storyteller.”

The PhD candidate in marine environmental biology is helping to transform the award-winning children’s book Flotsam into a multifaceted digital application.

Conceived and illustrated by David Wiesner, the picture book Flotsam centers on the exploits of a boy on the beach who discovers a camera that has drifted through the ocean, taking photos of plants and animals underwater and of children on shore who have picked up the camera and then tossed it back.

Holm described the project as something akin to a comic strip, one displayed on the screen of an iPad instead of printed on newsprint and illustrated with images that are animated instead of static.

For example, when the boy in the story discovers the camera on the beach, the camera is encrusted with barnacles. Clicking on the barnacles on the screen will display text and provide an audio pronunciation of the word. Holm is the voice of the pronunciations and all the other spoken material in the project.

Holm, a PhD candidate in marine environmental biology at USC Dornsife, is collaborating on a digital application based on the children’s picture book Flotsam. (Photo/Courtesy of Annenberg Innovation Lab)

The “dynamic book” features a mix of marine plants and animals, but Holm is the only one in the research group who has firsthand experience with them. Using Wiesner’s work — his illustrations earned him the 2007 Caldecott Medal for distinguished picture books — the project also involves students and staff at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the USC School of Cinematic Arts, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and a “think-and-do tank” called The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co.

To get her collaborators better acquainted with ocean life, she whisked them to the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and took them snorkeling in Big Fisherman’s Cove.

“We got them into the water so they could finally see what I meant when I said ‘kelp,’ ” Holm said. “Some of them had never seen it before. Some had never snorkeled before.”

Holm came to USC Dornsife in 2010 as a graduate student of Karla Heidelberg, assistant professor of biological sciences. Holm is studying microbial diversity associated with gorgonian corals in Southern California; she passed her qualifying exams for her PhD in January. Involved in some form of marine research for more than a decade, she balances her scientific work with educational outreach.

As an undergraduate student at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, Holm gave tours of the cephalopod laboratory, where she worked, to school groups. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she worked at The Marine Science Consortium at Wallops Island, Va., as a “K through Gray” educator.

As a graduate student at USC Dornsife, she has volunteered as a mentor to the QuikSCience Challenge science competition and as an adviser for the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience at the Science Center. Her participation in the “transmedia” project is a natural choice for her, though it has proven to be as unfamiliar to her as marine science is to her collaborators at USC Annenberg.

“I’ve been working with them for more than a year, and I spent the first three or four months just trying to understand what they were talking about,” she said. “They’re communications people, and I’m the only scientist in the room.”

Managed by the Annenberg Innovation Lab, the dynamic book teaches the concept of film to second-graders of the 21st century. The Flotsam plot deepens when the boy discovers that the camera is a film camera. Prompts within the storyline explain the idea of “film,” and the protagonist searches for a business that can process this mysterious media. The resulting photos are displayed in the dynamic book as animated images of fish and octopuses. The book also introduces the viewers to the use of microscopes and to concepts of magnification that allow the display of “pictures within the pictures.”

The technical portions of the project have been completed, and the group is currently working on education curricula to make it useful in a grade-school classroom. When finished, it will be available as an app through the Apple Store.

Holm’s work with staff and students at USC Annenberg has taught her some of the jargon of 21st-century digital communication. It’s also given her the chance to apply and refine her own skills as a science educator.

“One of my biggest strengths is communicating science to nonscientists,” she said. “This has been a golden opportunity for me working with these collaborators. In every meeting we have, I try to explain some of the scientific language to them. They really get a kick out of the word ‘dinoflagellate.’

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