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

Collaborative science in Iceland

September 18, 2013

The newly established Alumni Council Fund for Faculty Scholarship and Innovation will allow an Earlham group to continue defining experiential learning in Iceland.

Earlier this year Professor of Computer Science Charlie Peck ’84 and a group of students designed and built the hardware and software for scientists to take geocoded soil and water samples for microbial DNA analysis. In July, members of Earlham’s group joined the scientists and spent a month in Iceland taking samples from fjords, glaciers, volcanoes, waterfalls, caves, geysers and lagoons.

“The Iceland project is an excellent example of faculty-student collaboration,” says Alumni Council member Melissa Moye ‘84, who serves as Chief Investment Officer for the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System. “And, it is exactly what the Alumni Council Fund is designed to promote.”

Alumni Council is the advisory body to the College on behalf of the Earlham Alumni Association. Currently, 34 members meet on campus twice each year to focus on programs and communications to strengthen the relationship between Earlham and its alumni and friends and to advance the interest and needs of the College.

“Earlham is encouraging a 10-year mindset among students and educators to move students into a post-graduation world,” Moye explains. “Hands-on research experience alongside mentoring faculty can give students and graduates a sense of direction and know-how that is valued and needed in the world. We, as alumni, find it exciting to be a part of collaborative research projects that are helping to define Earlham’s contribution to a better world.”

Peck already is working with current students to prepare and plan for next summer’s fieldwork, which will continue to build on the project’s initial success.

Ivan Babic ’13 says that typically similar sampling projects utilize different and expensive 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. They chose to use the Nexus 7 tablet and Tristan Wright ’13 took the lead in developing an Android app Seshat.

“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. This information was easily transferred to a local laptop for aggregation, analysis and visualization.

“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,” says Peck, who is working with three current students to plan next summer’s fieldwork.

“We set out to see if students could learn computer science, geology, biology and chemistry in this experiential way,” Peck 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.”

Wright calls the research trip a “dream opportunity.”

“It was all very breathtaking,” Wright says. “There was plenty of fish and sunlight in a relatively untouched landscape unlike anywhere else. In the 1800s all the trees were cut down on the island for charcoal; the island has not fully recovered and so the landscapes are very open. Fjords and glaciers are still inconceivably huge.”

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.

“We would be out on a glacier or crawling around a volcano and we needed to know north from south,” Peck says. “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 adds.

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