Collaborative Science in Iceland

Ivan Babic '13 (left), Associate Professor of Computer Science Charlie Peck and Tristan Wright '13 secure samples during a month-long research trip to Iceland.

An Earlham group defined experiential learning in fjords, on glaciers, volcanoes, waterfalls, caves, geysers and lagoons during a month-long education and research expedition in Iceland in July.

“We sought to help geologists and biologists conduct environmental sampling easily and inexpensively, generating geocoded data which could be processed and visualized in the field,” says Charlie Peck, associate professor of computer science. “The context was taking soil and water samples for microbial DNA analysis.”

Peck, Ivan Babic ’13, Kristin Muterspaw ‘15 and Tristan Wright ’13 were tasked with designing and building the hardware and software, which began more than a year ago. In July, Peck, Babic, and Wright took the gear to Iceland where they worked with 16 students and faculty from a consortium of Tennessee colleges and universities using them in the field.

Babic says that typically, similar projects utilize different sensors for each parameter and platform. The group decided the easiest way to significantly reduce cost and complexity was to use one hardware and software platform for all sensors.

There’s An App for That

They chose to use the Nexus 7 tablet because of its cost, built-in GPS, USB interface and open source operating system. Wright took the lead in designing an Android app that would collect data from the different sensors, geocode it and transfer it to a local laptop for aggregation, analysis and visualization. The group named the app Seshat after ancient Egypt’s divine measurer and scribe.

“The app was essentially a digital clipboard which would constantly record e.g. ambient parameters like air temperature, humidity, pressure, and C02 content, and you could easily record samples from other sensors too,” Wright says.

“Once we were in the field, a lot of it was observing the geologists and chemists and adapting the technology to meet their needs instead of the scientists adapting to the technology,” Peck says. “We would work with them and observe something that we could improve. So late at night — in the full light of day — we sat in coffeeshops and hostels, working on the software. The next day they used the new version and the cycle continued.”

DNA Sampling

In the final week, the group worked in a lab at the University of Akureyri, where they extracted DNA from the soil and water samples to be used as part of a National Science Foundation funded metagenomics project that Peck is working on with Chris Smith, assistant professor of biology.

“The next step is to prep the DNA and then send it to be sequenced,” Peck says. “We hope to have the raw data back by late fall. This will tell us how many and which types of microbes are living in the sites we sampled.”

By chance the group was invited to take samples from an archeological site at Skálanes; these samples will be analyzed with an eye toward learning which animals early settlers of Iceland kept.

Peck says plans are being made to return in a year or two.

“We set out to see if students could learn computer science, geology, biology and chemistry in this experiential way,” he says. “Many courses have lab components, but in this case it was a lab course with a classroom component. The context raised the stakes for the students. It wasn’t enough to score 80 percent on the test; the gear needed to do what the science required, period.”

“Although it wasn’t perfect, we accomplished most of what we set out to accomplish. The in-field visualization component still needs work, but pedagogically, I believe we were successful.”

New Horizons

Wright says that while the scenery was breathtaking, he gained valuable skills including the ability to lead a coding team.

“I also appreciate that it’s possible to make tools on mobile platforms that have some use beyond posting statuses and pictures to social networks,” Wright says.

“As students, we were able to put to use what we learned in the classroom,” Babic says. “This wasn’t a test. It had to work.”

Babic says he also loved the geographic diversity of Iceland and that it was daylight the entire month. Peck admits that he woke up nearly every two hours and had trouble navigating.

“It drove me nuts,” Peck says. “We would be out on a glacier or crawling around a volcano, and we needed to know north from south, but there were no navigational cues in the environment. I spent a lot of time staring at the compass app on my phone.”

“I have been to a lot of different places, but I felt like Iceland was a different planet,” Babic says.

From Coding to Pipetting

In addition to sampling the archaeological dig, the month-long experience yielded other valuable serendipitous moments including one with pipetting. Many of the 16 students had never used a pipette, and they were without the parafilm that is normally used to teach people about pipetting. Babic says they adapted and took advantage of the materials they had to develop an innovative tool for pipetting practice. The group created a Google spreadsheet with different sized cells for different liquid quantities. The document was then opened on the Nexus tablets, and students practiced pipetting directly onto the tablet’s glass surface.

“They beaded up beautifully,” Peck says.

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