Students in the environmental data science capstone class have been struggling with their final assignments: creating and designing web apps.

“In this work, you go through long periods where something doesn’t work and doesn’t work, and then you change one small thing and boom, your map is suddenly beautiful,” said Jennifer Ochs, who described both the semester long-course in the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) and its intention.

It is this ability to solve problems and navigate their way through many trials — and more than a few errors — that has marked the success of these graduating students, preparing them for careers connecting people with the tools and technology needed to explore critical questions about our natural world.

Taking a step toward uncertainty

For Assistant Professor J.P. Gannon, one of the goals of the capstone course is to challenge senior students to get outside of their comfort zones.

“When the capstone projects are initially presented, our students are often overwhelmed,” said Gannon, who teaches the course in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “It feels like it might be too much, that they’re not prepared for it. And it’s one of my favorite things as a professor to say, ‘No, I know the skills you have. You’ll be able to do this.’”

The 14 students in the course spent the semester working in teams to design and create web apps — software applications that run in a web browser — that meet the goals of a specific data science project. To generate ideas for student projects, Gannon solicits pitches from researchers conducting environmental data research in coordination with the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study, a long-term ecological research project that aims to bridge the gap between science and land management public policy, recreation, and education.  

“The ideas we use come from a broad range of scientists,” said Gannon. “I reach out to people involved in the ecosystem study and tell them what the capstone class does and what projects we’ve taken on in the past. From that, they send me pitches for ideas they’d like our students to take on.”

This year, the capstone course students worked on four projects. Objectives for those projects ranged from visualizing citizen science data to track seasonal changes in the Great Smoky National Park to understanding the relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and tree success to a web app that helps middle schoolers understand streamflow processes.

From streams to STEM education

“Our main goal was to create an app that is used by middle school kids to help maintain interest in STEM,” said Lindsey Finks, a senior from Warrington, Virginia. “One component we have is a stream model that students can click through to make changes, so they can see how a stream might change if there is a drought or a flood. The app is easy to comprehend and interactive, but the students are being introduced to models and data outputs and how you can take on the ground physical characteristics of stream flow and turn it into something where you can extract data.”

Emery Poulsen, who worked with Finks on the middle school stream project, said designing an app to fit the demands of a client is both the hardest part of the experience and the most rewarding.

“It’s really cool to build something from scratch, to conceptualize this project and bring it to life,” said Poulsen, who is from Lorton, Virginia. “That’s the hardest part, too, that no one has done this, so we have to take a lot of shots in the dark and hope they work. There have been a lot of challenges, but it’s built up my confidence a lot in what I’m capable of.”

Four people sit around a table, with a computer monitor between them.
Jennifer Ochs (at far left) is part of a team that is using citizen data to better understand how the climate is changing the Great Smoky National Park. Photo by Krista Timney for Virginia Tech.

Ochs, who is working on the team that is visualizing tree phenology measurements — when trees bud and leaf-out in the spring and when they drop leaves in the fall – to determine how the climate is changing the Great Smoky National Park, echoes that the experience of struggling to find a solution is part of what makes the course impactful.

“The last few weeks, we’ve been fighting with code,” said Ochs, who is from Springfield, Virginia. “For me, the highlight is getting to work with real data on a real project, kind of figuring it out as we go. It’s a nice experience into the practical things we can do with this skill set.”

Gannon said the experience of taking on a design challenge is a critical leaping off point, where the learning they’ve done in the classroom meets real world applications.

“A big goal of this class is giving students a better understanding of what they’re capable of,” said Gannon. “Every semester I’ve taught this course, I see the students start to figure things out, and they realize that even if they haven’t done something exactly like the project they’re working on, they have the skill to create something special.”

Three starts in a rapidly emerging field

The demand for data science professionals to enter fields of forestry, ecology, and conservation has never been higher.

“Very high temporal or spatial resolution data that can describe different aspects of a forest is getting cheaper and cheaper to acquire, and more available,” Gannon said. “So you have a situation where in order to analyze all of this available data, nonprofits or corporations or city or local governments need to have someone who can use data science tools.”

The next steps that the three graduating seniors will be taking reveal the breadth of opportunities that come from choosing environmental data science as a major.

Poulsen will be working in the Denver offices of Esri, a geographic information systems software company. “I interned with them in Redlands, California, over the summer,” she said. “I found it really interesting and challenging, so I’m going the GIS route with my career.”

Ochs, who has led canoeing and hiking trips for Venture Out, the university's outdoor experiential education program housed within Virginia Tech Recreational Sports, will be spending her first summer as a graduate working as a logistics coordinator for Outward Bound in Moab, Utah, helping teenagers experience the desert wilderness firsthand.

Finally, Finks will continue her education at Virginia Tech, applying her skills with data analytics toward a master’s degree and working on questions related to carbon in forest soils.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time here in CNRE,” said Finks, who will be working with professors Brian Strahm and Daniel McLaughlin, both in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “I’m excited to come in with a data and analysis background and start learning how to apply it to the science and theory of forest processes and dynamics.”

Gannon, who recently received funding from the National Science Foundation through the Hubbard Brook Long Term Ecological Research program that will support the costs of the environmental data science capstone course for the next five years, notes that having the capacity to be adaptive in their projects will be a critical skill as students embark on careers in a field that is constantly changing.

“I think it’s important, when you’re applying for a job or graduate school, to be able to say, ‘not only are these the skills that I have, but I’m confident that I can develop them further to take on x, y, and z.’ To me, that’s a core of what you should come away from an education with: an ability to learn and expand on what you know.”

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