Connected Collaborators

Associate Professor of Computer Science Timothy Wahls and Asir Saeed '16, their faces illuminated by their computer screens, clean up water quality data. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Associate Professor of Computer Science Timothy Wahls and Asir Saeed '16, their faces illuminated by their computer screens, clean up water quality data. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Student-faculty research connects sustainability and computer science

By Ben West '14

The fearless explorer, slicing through vines. The lonely philosopher, cramped over her desk. The isolated hacker, gaze fixed on the screen. These clichés fail to capture the scope of student-faculty research at Dickinson, where programmers collaborate with water-quality experts and farmers to cross a variety of fields. This summer Asir Saeed ’16, Hieu Le ’16 and Maurice Royce ’16 joined forces with Associate Professor of Computer Science Timothy Wahls to mine data on water quality and to streamline production at the Dickinson College Farm. 

Saeed, a computer science major, reprised his role as Wahls’ research partner, using algorithms to search for patterns in Pennsylvania water-quality statistics. This technique, known as data mining, incorporates information from the HydroDesktop database, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and Dickinson’s own Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM).

“It’s just amazing to be able to work with someone with so much experience and so much knowledge in the field and have him treat you like a peer,” says Saeed, who was attracted to the collaboration as a way to mesh computer science with sustainability. 

“I’ve had to do a lot of background reading and preparation as well,” adds Wahls, who has not worked with data mining in the past. “This project wouldn't exist without Asir.”

Saeed also made major contributions to another project known as FARMDATA, farm-management software that is now the responsibility of Le (economics and computer science) and Royce (computer science).

“We created an app that the user can open on their smartphones and input data in the field, right where they work,” says Le. The software’s benefits transcend convenience and efficiency—farm managers can use it for long-term crop-rotation planning. The pair’s addition to the software even enables quick data analysis. “So now the farm manager can [ask], 'Is a certain crop in a certain field being productive? Is it making us money? Or should we move it to another field, use a different fertilizer?' ” explains Royce. “That’s what we’re currently working on.”

Wahls’ hands-off instructional style has coaxed excellent work out of the students this summer. “He gives students a lot of space, both in classes and in the research project,” says Le. “It’s all based on us to choose what we want to do.”

“I try to approach subjects from a student perspective—both in my teaching and in working on research projects with students,” Wahls observes. “Students are often most interested in practical applications, and that’s usually the best way to get students engaged with a topic.”

The students' work received support from the Center for Sustainability Education's Sustainability Education Fund, from Dickinson's Research and Development Committee, as well as a Career Center Internship Grant. More work in the fall on FARMDATA will be backed by the USDA via a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant.

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Published August 13, 2014