Innovative Hydroinformatics course unites engineers at three campuses


Date: Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Byline: Jenn Gibbs, UEN


What’s worse for a scientist than having too little data? Sometimes, it’s having too much.

With more information gathered every day, scientists who hope to solve impending water management issues need new, more efficient ways to store, analyze and share digital information. This is why professors at three universities have teamed up to offer a new graduate course in Hydroinformatics.  In it, students are learning how to use computer software and hardware to manage massive amounts of water-related data.

“Hydrologists are starting to use sensors that record a terabyte of data every hour,” explains Nathan Swain, a Brigham Young University (BYU) graduate student and researcher on the CI-WATER project. “When you consider all the different devices measuring water flow around the country, you realize this data can't really be analyzed by simple statistics or stored in an Excel spreadsheet. You have to build servers to share them.”

Hydroinformatics can reduce processes that used to take weeks down to seconds, making information more usable.  This is good news for Noah Schmadel, a Utah State University (USU) doctoral candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering who wants to develop and test models for predicting stream transport.

“The goal is to save time in the long run while preserving data,” Schmadel says. “Information management is such a huge challenge, it’s mind-boggling. This course has me thinking a lot more about it from the start of a research project.”

“This is a course I wish I had in grad school,” says Jeff Horsburgh, one of the professors team-teaching the course. “Rather than expect our students to learn fundamental data management and informatics concepts on their own, this course provides them with more formal instruction they can apply to their own research projects.”

The course is notable for its delivery as well as its curriculum: class sessions are held simultaneously at USU, BYU and the University of Utah (UU), with the three locations linked via interactive videoconferencing infrastructure provided by Utah Education Network (UEN). The technology-assisted delivery means students from different campuses can interact in real-time with all four professors: Horsburgh and David Rosenberg at USU, Dan Ames at BYU and Steve Burian at UU.

“Each session one of the instructors has a lecture,” explains UU course participant Erfan Goharian. “Each professor has a great skill in some specific part of the course, so students can see more diversity and depth.”

While having four professors for one course may require students to adjust, the innovative teaching model also fosters an exchange of ideas between the universities that one participant calls “motivating.”

“It teaches you to think further outside the classroom,” says Schmadel. “We can connect and share information with anyone in the world.”

USU, BYU and UU are partners in the NSF-EPSCoR project, CI-WATER, along with the University of Wyoming, Wyoming PBS, the Natural History Museum of Utah and the EPSCoR offices of Wyoming and Utah. CI-WATER seeks to build the cyberinfrastructure needed for advanced water modeling.