Collecting environmental data atop an Icelandic glacier
October 27, 2016
Computer science, biology and environmental science intersected on a glacier in Iceland to impact science, science education and the career paths of the involved students.
“We collected environmental data through a plethora of sensors, and then we contextualized the data in the real world,” says Deeksha Srinath ’17. “One of the things we did was to collect data on the edges of a glacier by walking the perimeter of the glacier with sensors that measured altitude, humidity and air temperatures. We hope to do this every year as the glacier recedes to measure the impact of climate change. We will make maps to show how much it recedes and how the environmental variables change as it recedes.”
The group, which included three students, two recent graduates and two faculty members, was lead by Professor of Computer Science Charlie Peck. The group began the project during fall semester. Work continued during the spring and during a three-week, on-campus May Term course. Then the group spent three weeks in Iceland. Their work was informed by previous work by Peck’s group in Iceland dating to July 2013.
Using Nexus tablets running locally built software with sensors, the group collected data and then used its own aerial photography and a geographic information system to visualize the data while in the field.
“Before there were gaps in the data when the groups returned from the field,” says Srinath, a computer science major. “They would think things were working and that data was being collected, but it was not. Being able to visualize the data out in the field without Internet connectivity is really helpful and complicated. We created a local database, and the data was collected and pushed to the remote database.”
While Srinath worked on coding for data collection and visualization, computer science major Nic Arnold ’17 took the lead with aerial imaging using Remote Piloted Aircraft (RPA) photography and Lidar, a surveying method that uses a laser light to measure distance. Biology major Erin Lewis ’17 used a GIS program to pull the data and imaging together.
“It’s a great mapping tool that shows different layers of data samples,” Lewis says. “In the layers you see all the data samples and all the associated metadata. It’s a good way to look at the end product.”
The group sampled one glacier, two volcanoes and an archaeological site.
“Walking the glacier was my favorite part,” Srinath says. “We wore crampons, and had two guides for the five-hour hike.”
“There’s something about the physical experience — the hiking, the cold — that adds another element,” Lewis says. “The adversity or the struggle adds another challenge and teaches me about myself and what I can do and what has been done before me.”
Lewis says one of the best parts of the trip for her was the project’s interdisciplinary nature.
“I’m still processing, but I think one of the big takeaways for me is that I have struggled to find the happy medium because I’m interested in all of these different things,” Lewis says. “This trip found that happy medium. It helped open my world to seeing how different disciplines can work together to find something that for me is more fulfilling.”
Arnold says he grew a lot in his confidence in his abilities.
“I knew what I enjoyed, and I knew where I stood academically,” he says. “The question was how would I fare in the real world environment. I found that I was actually quite confident. Probably the biggest thing I learned is not to be discouraged by failure. When you are in the field, there’s so much pressure, but failure is learning even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time. It’s not something to be discouraged. You know what doesn’t work, and you probably learned several important things along the way. Failing, especially in computer science, is commonplace.”
Arnold says that through working so closely for an extended period, the group began to function like a “well-oiled machine.”
“After spending so much time together, inevitably relationships are strained, but you work through it and learn what people need,” he says. “As conversations happen and work is carried out, you start to see people as real people rather than professors or students in a classroom. That’s when you begin to form real bonds.”
“When you spend all day every day with a small group of people, you learn a lot about the others and you learn a lot about yourself,” Srinath says. “Students and professors meet each other at a common place of respect.”
Another highlight of the trip was the group’s stay at Skálanes Nature and Heritage Center, where they learned about East Iceland’s culture and history. Skálanes, which is home to a larger Eider Duck colony, is also a hub for scientific exploration.
“Working to be helpful to the people at Skálanes was an important part of the program,” Lewis says. “We wanted to contribute to the science they do there and bring technology to make their work easier. We used RPAs and aerial imaging to see (invasive) Lupin fields, archaeology sites and nesting sites.
“Skálanes was definitely an important part of the trip for me. Interacting with the people there and learning about their culture gives me perspective on my own life and how I fit into the world,” says Lewis, who worked in the Center’s archaeological sites, mostly old farming settlements, looking for Viking settlements.
Ólafur Pétursson, who owns and operates Skálanes with his family, says he feels privileged to host Peck and his students because of the shared scientific visions and learning.
“The Earlham group experienced Icelandic culture by participating in the daily work at Skálanes alongside Icelanders and others,” says Pétursson. “They learned through conversations, stories and our way of life. Cross-disciplinary conversations helped them to disseminate knowledge and skills.”
“I think these trips are a good way for me to position myself and think about what it is that I want from my education and where I want my skills to go after I graduate,” Srinath says. “Going on these trips put it in my face how I can use the thing I’m learning to make an impact, no matter how small. One of our guides on the glacier pointed to a lagoon and said that was the glacier last year. That made it real for me. It shook me up.”
Senior Director of Annual Giving Gail Clark, Computer Science Post-Baccaulereate Kristin Muterspaw’15 and Tara Urner ’16 also participated in the Icelandic Field Studies research trip.
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Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. Earlham is one of only 40 national liberal arts colleges ranked among U.S. News and World Reports' "Great Schools at a Great Price."
Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at 765-983-1256