Main Menu

Seeking Environmental Intelligence

Technology is reinventing environmental studies. From drones to electronic sensors, technology is helping us collect, analyze, and disseminate environmental data in new and more powerful ways.  But, technology  is a means to an end. Our goal is environmental intelligence.

Environmental intelligence is environmental information and data, but it is also the technology-enabled systems that collect environmental data. Environmental intelligence is also the ability to turn data into knowledge and apply this knowledge to advance our understanding of interactions between humans and our environments. We need this so we can make decisions that are more ecologically sound and sustainable in areas like energy production, agriculture, and urban planning. We need this to get better at shaping our environments and solving environmental problems.

Why is the environmental studies program at Shepherd University well positioned for seeking environmental intelligence?

Environmental studies is an interdisciplinary field of study. All traditional branches of science play a role and we have faculty with a diversity of expertise that is rarely found. This expertise spans physics, electronics, and computer science, to biology, conservation ecology, geology, and resource management.

Moreover, we embrace new technology and bring this technology into the curriculum. For example, most of our students now graduate with knowledge of geographic information systems (GIS), computer-based tools for gathering, analyzing, and visualizing geospatial data sets. Our newest course is focused on unmanned aerial systems (UAVs), what most people know as drones. Students in this course learn how to operate UAVs and study to prepare for the FAA part 107 exam to acquire a commercial drone pilot license.

In addition, it is an underappreciated fact that environmental studies also involves dimensions of the social sciences and humanities. Economics and culture are inextricably linked with the pursuit of environmental sustainability. Because Shepherd University is a public liberal arts University, environmental studies students have abundant opportunities to take courses in economics, history, geography, sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies.

How are Shepherd University environmental studies faculty applying technology outside of the classroom?

Dr. Sytil Murphy and Mr. Steve Shaffer are working with the US Forest Service to use drones to study reclamation of strip-mined land in the Monongahela National Forest. This work aims to advance efforts to reforest these lands with native species including red spruce. Dr. Jeff Groff and Dr. Peter Vila are working with the town of Shepherdstown to deploy sensors for real-time monitoring of water quality in Town Run. This spring-fed stream runs through the middle of Shepherdstown and is the backup water supply for the town. Both of these projects involve student participants.

Our faculty are also developing the Shepherd University Agricultural Innovation Center on a 158-acre University-owned farm near campus. Our goal is to build the Center from the ground up using technology to seek environmental intelligence. Agricultural systems are dependent on enormous inputs of energy and materials, including petrochemicals. At the Center we are interested in developing agricultural systems that emphasize local and sustainable production of inputs and that are as closed-loop as possible.

What are some of the projects being pursued at the Shepherd University Agricultural Innovation Center?

In the first year of work, we built a high-tunnel greenhouse, planted an orchard, established an apiary (a collection of honeybee hives), and restored well water and electricity service at the farm. We also completed a 6 kW solar array and established high-speed internet access at the farm.

The solar array produced clean renewable electricity and electronic sensors keep track of real-time and cumulative energy production. This production data will be important as we continue development at the farm. It will allow us to more closely match consumption of energy with production.

Currently, work at the Center is focused on revitalizing a building that was once a milking parlor and turning it into a high-tech aquaponics laboratory. Aquaponics involves growing fish and vegetables in an integrated fashion. The fish provide nutrients for the vegetables and the vegetables help purify water for the fish.

This laboratory will be in an example of indoor controlled environment agriculture. Many aspects of the system will be carefully monitored and controlled. For example, the LED grow lights we are using are WIFI-enabled allowing us to tune their schedule and even the intensity and spectrum of the light they produce to maximize productivity while matching energy consumption to production from our solar panels.

The Town-Run project with the town of Shepherdstown aims to collect real-time water-quality data and share this data openly with the community. What are the benefits of this? 

We consider the Town-Run project to be an experiment in environmental transparency. Water quality is something that people care about but few are aware of the day-to-day conditions of the waterways flowing through their communities. Metrics of water-quality are not always visible to our senses. Our hope is bring these environmental conditions into consciousness. If residents have real-time information about Town-Run, they may begin to see correlations between water-quality and human activities in the watershed.

For example, should the data show a spike in conductivity following a winter snowstorm, residents may see the connection with application of road salt. Other activities that affect the watershed like construction, fertilizer use, and discharge of human and animal waste may also have signatures in the data. In time, citizens that have access to this data may modify their behaviors. Also, town leaders may be able to used this data to hold polluters more accountable.