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Environmental field work gets high-tech boost

Trying out the new ENVIT system on the Massachusetts Avenue bridge are (left to right) graduate students Richard Camilli, Enrique Vivoni (lowering a line into the river to retrieve a water sample) and Ching-Huei Tsou; senior Amy Watson; and graduate student Russ Spieler.
Trying out the new ENVIT system on the Massachusetts Avenue bridge are (left to right) graduate students Richard Camilli, Enrique Vivoni (lowering a line into the river to retrieve a water sample) and Ching-Huei Tsou; senior Amy Watson; and graduate student Russ Spieler.
Photo / Laura Wulf

Environmental researchers may soon find that their field work is getting easier, thanks to a group of students who dreamed up a software application that records environmental data in the field, then transmits it wirelessly to a remote server for display on the Internet.

The product was the brainchild of Enrique Vivoni (S.B. 1996, S.M.), a hydrologist working toward his Ph.D. in the Parsons Laboratory of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Vivoni knew the difficulty of collecting data in the field, where a notebook could easily become wet and the data smudged, and had discussed with friends the possibility of creating an electronic field notebook to eliminate recording errors. But his own research is in building a computer model to simulate water flow in river basins from rainfall data. He didn't have the time or expertise to design the notebook all by himself.

So he invited Mario Rodr������guez (S.B. 2000); Daniel Sheehan, a spatial data specialist in Information Systems; and Richard Camilli, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering (CEE), to join him on the project. With this team, the MIT Environmental Information Technology student group was born.

When Vivoni heard about the MIT-Microsoft iCampus grants for educational computing initiatives, it occurred to him that here was a way to achieve that goal, and another. He applied for and received a $60,000 grant from iCampus to set up an undergraduate subject in which environmental engineering majors would build the electronic field notebook.

Vivoni's interest in offering the course was twofold. He wanted to improve environmental data collection and also bring information technology-related advances into the undergraduate study of environmental engineering, which he thought could use a little whiz-bang to compete with some of the more high-tech majors.

In his words, it lacked "cool."

Last fall, the electronic field notebook was developed by 13 undergraduates in 1.992 (Software Tools for Environmental Field Studies) offered by CEE. The department gave Vivoni use of its Design Studio of the Future, providing access to a computer network and audiovisual equipment. The Parsons Lab also provided resources, including the use of chemistry and biological measurement equipment.

The course was taught by Vivoni, Camilli, Rodr������guez, Sheehan and Professor Dara Entekhabi, Vivoni's research advisor. Three undergraduate computer science majors worked as UROP assistants in the class to help the students, most of whom had little or no programming experience. In addition, six M.Eng. graduate students contributed significantly to the development of the product through their graduate-level research.

"The feedback we're getting from the students is that this project has the 'coolness factor,'" said Vivoni, 26, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico. "Course 2 [mechanical engineering] has the robot competition, which is really cool; civil and environmental engineering students didn't have an equivalent. Now this is sort of our coolness factor."

"The course provided me with a true MIT experience," said Arthur Fitzmaurice, a junior double-majoring in environmental and chemical engineering. "I've faced challenges in other classes, but they've seemed rather straightforward. It isn't that everything was easy, but the solutions to problems were attainable with just time and effort.

"This course has given me more than that. We were presented with a problem and given certain deliverables we had to meet to achieve the objectives of the course. We had to teach ourselves the programming languages; we had to figure out how to use the field equipment; we had to determine what we wanted our software to look like. We had the freedom to invent," said Fitzmaurice.


The project no doubt became even cooler when Professor Sheila Frankel of CEE, a member of the project's advisory board, arranged for the students to test their equipment on her annual TREX (Traveling Research Environmental Xperience) during IAP. The undergraduates leave tomorrow for a two-week trip to New Zealand and Australia. There they'll get hands-on experience collecting data in the field with their new software-enhanced notebook, called the ENVIT Field Notebook. During the Jan. 10-26 trip, the group will be placing photos and data on its web site .

The electronic field notebook begins with a hand-held computing device that has been made more rugged and enhanced significantly with software written by the students that allows it to work with several other devices. The unit is physically connected to a GPS sensor and a multiparameter water-quality sensor, from which it records data. Mobile mapping software records and maps the exact locations where the environmental readings are taken. The system then sends the data to a laptop computer in the roving van through a wireless network, which in turn sends it to the main server back in the researcher's office, where it can be displayed over the Internet.

Frankel, who is assistant director of the Parsons Lab, planned a research trip that will take the students through several different types of ecosystems, including a cave system and a volcanic island in Auckland. From there they head to Newcastle, Australia for four days of field work at the Williams River watershed, where they'll gather data on water quality with alumnus Garry Willgoose (S.M. 1989, Ph.D.), a professor at the University of Newcastle.

They'll spend the last part of the trip in Cairns, where they'll study a tropical rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef with a marine biologist. Travel was paid for by grants from Northeast Educational Services, Inc., and the Alumni Fund for Teaching and Education Excellence.

Back in the United States, graduate students will continue to work on the ENVIT Field Notebook as part of the M.Eng. program, but Vivoni said he hopes to see the group continue with a large undergraduate representation. "The product has commercialization potential, which we're exploring together as a student group. However, we are concentrating on improving our first prototype and demonstrating its capabilities," he said.

"My first motivation was to incorporate programming into the environmental engineering major. The students showed they can do it. All they need is confidence," said Vivoni.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 9, 2002.

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