Cross-Department Collaboration Enhances Thesis Project
The Department of Physics has teamed up with the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology to develop hardware for studying wetlands on the Lake Ontario shoreline.
Last summer, graduate student Courtney Scoles of the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology confronted an issue that would make a portion of her thesis project difficult to complete — until a partnership with the Department of Physics made a resourceful solution possible.
Scoles and her thesis advisor, Associate Professor of Wetland Science Rachel Schultz, have been researching the effects of cattail removal on carbon storage and methane emissions in coastal wetlands on Lake Ontario, a project that requires dataloggers to record soil moisture and soil oxygen throughout the growing season.
Upon purchasing dataloggers, which are devices that communicate with sensors to store data over long time periods, the duo was faced with unexpected technical complications regarding the dataloggers' compatibility with soil oxygen sensors.
“We had to scramble for another way to do the data logging,” explained Schultz.
That’s when she turned to some experts just a few hallways away to collectively brainstorm potential solutions.
Assistant Professor of Physics Zachary Robinson, along with junior physics majors Brandon Parks and Zack Putney, teamed up to develop an alternative for the project.
With guidance from Robinson, hardware guru Parks and coding wizard Putney are in the process of developing a datalogger on campus that will serve Scoles’s and Schultz’s needs — at 13 times less than what it would have cost to purchase a compatible commercial datalogger.
“Now, we can put more dataloggers out at each of our sites: Buck Pond, Braddock Bay, Buttonwood Creek, and Salmon Creek. With this datalogger on top of our other ones, we will be able to put every datalogger in each site and can actually collect the soil moisture data and the soil oxygen data throughout the growing season, which we were unable to do last season,” said Scoles.
With an allotted four months to complete the project, Parks and Putney utilized every bit of that time, which Putney didn't anticipate would be the case.
“I learned that writing code is very hard,” he said with a laugh.
The project required more than 300 lines of it.
In comparing this independent project to what he’s learning in the classroom, Putney acknowledged that class assignments are designed so that students are able to complete them efficiently under tight deadlines. He says that solving the real-life challenges associated with programming the datalogger, unlike anything he had encountered in his classroom studies, made the project a rewarding learning experience.
“For example, we have a clock in there that gives us an exact date and time, but the SD card reader which we need in order to actually collect the data also had a real-time clock. So, when I was writing the code, it was reading one sometimes and the other sometimes, and I couldn't figure out what was happening,” said Putney. “Fortunately, Dr. Robinson was able to help me figure it out.”
On the hardware side, Parks encountered his own set of challenges, including designing the logger to be waterproof and regulating its internal temperature as its battery charges in the sun.
While the project is ongoing, the datalogger seemed to function successfully when its battery life was tested on the roof of the Seymour College Union, even with clouds and snow.
In addition to guiding his fellow physicists Park and Putney through their trials and triumphs, Robinson taught Scoles how to solder the loose wires of the oxygen sensors into the datalogger headphone jack — a new skill for the field-based environmentalist.
The project has provided the students a taste of what their futures could hold.
“You can do a lot with a physics degree, and a lot of times, physics majors don't know there are ways you can contribute to so many different fields. This is just one small example,” said Robinson.
Putney hopes to eventually earn a doctorate in physics and teach at a university, while Parks plans to pursue post-grad physics research. On the environmental side, Scoles’s dream is to land a job that combines wetland science, wetland restoration, and climate change mitigation.
In the meantime, the datalogger collaboration has inspired a new set of possibilities for Brockport science students. Robinson recently submitted a proposal for SUNY's Innovative Instruction Technology Grant, which he and Schultz hope will allow them to incorporate datalogger creation and practical use into their classroom curriculum.
“This is a case of a great project coming out of a problem,” said Schultz. “And I am grateful for how it created opportunities for students and multidisciplinary teamwork.”