Friday, November 11, 2016

Diving into Groundwater Research

This August, WyCEHG welcomed a new scientist onto their team, Dr. Kevin Befus. Dr. Befus works in the Civil and Architectural Engineering Department as a groundwater hydrologist.

Before coming to Laramie, Dr. Befus received his PhD from the University of Texas, Austin and went on to serve as a U. S. Geological Survey Mendenhall Research Fellow in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Dr. Befus's research is focused on how groundwater interacts with conditions at the Earth's surface.

"Groundwater is what I'm curious about. How does it affect everything else?" Dr. Befus said.

Groundwater acts as long term reservoir for water, but it does change over time. Dr. Befus is interested in how human uses are affecting the sustainability of the resource and how this in turn may affect system ecology, chemistry, and weathering of bedrock.

"Groundwater is a huge resource for producing food and our populations water. Over half of Laramie's water comes from groundwater. It acts as underground storage and a natural filtration system," Dr. Befus said.

Dr. Befus became interested in hydrology during college. After changing his major to geology, he went to Honduras to help install water systems. "It was a humanitarian extrapolation of what hydrology can do," Dr. Befus explained.

Dr. Befus also enjoys working in the field, and has experience working in Wyoming's natural habitat. As a graduate student he worked in the Bighorn mountains studying their geological background and structure.

"Research is a different way to enjoy nature. It's like hiking except you are learning more about nature in the process, there's an additional purpose behind it," Dr. Befus said.

As his research begins Dr. Befus is looking for graduate and PhD students to work as a part of his Water Hydrology Group.

"We will possibly have 3 students for the start of 2017. They'd work on projects ranging from mountain hydrology, and potentially groundwater connections to other surface water and reservoirs," Dr. Befus said.

This is the first time Dr. Befus has been a part of an engineering program. In the future he would like to be involved with the Engineers without Boarders program and would act as a faculty mentor.

"Engineering is the applied aspect of science. It's science that can lead to better problem solving and designing," Dr. Befus said.

While Dr. Befus thinks understanding nature itself is satisfying, he also emphasizes the importance of the application of science to local communities.  He looks forward to contributing to outreach efforts within the University community and on the Wind River Reservation.

"Communicating about science is important because it shows the value of science and how it can affect day to day life. It helps get people excited. Not everyone is going to be a water nerd like me," Dr. Befus said.

We are excited that Dr. Befus has joined the WYCHEG team and can't wait to see what he has to contribute.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Ecology meets Technology

On June 21, 2016 girls from Laramie's Girl Scout troop participated in a Summer Coding Camp sponsored by the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and Wyoming EPSCoR. The camp lasted for 3 days and took place at the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center.  The nine participants were anywhere from 10-15 years old.

The course focused on concepts from both ecology and computer science to help solve real world problems. Brian Barber from the Biodiversity and Institute and Liz Nysson worked on developing the curriculum for the course.

To begin, the girls were introduced to some of the basic background of botany. Then they began to learn python coding, a type of coding typically used for beginners.

The python coding was then applied to Raspberry pi computers. These small computers are about the size of a credit card and can be used with a standard computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

"They learned basic programs and set up the circuit.  One of the firsts tasks they were assigned was to make a blinking light," Barber said.

The Arduino board was another piece of technology used for the girl's project. The board is a sensor that can be used for a variety of projects. It has the ability to detect movement, water levels, and Ph levels.

The girls used the Raspberry pi computers and the Arduino board to create a sensor they could put into a houseplant. The sensor could track the well-being of the plant and could alert the girls when it needed more water.

"It actually had a function and they applied it to a real world problem," Barber said. After the camp the girls were also allowed to keep what they had made.

While ecology and computer science may seem like to two completely different subjects, they are both essential parts of scientific research.

"Technology and computers drive a lot of our research. It requires computational power, you can't analyze the data any other way, and some of it is so specialized," Barber said.

It is also critical that coding programs such as this one are targeting younger girls. This because research has shown that once girls leave the STEM fields, they usually don't return to them at older ages. This early engagement can help foster interest in these fields and will eventually lead to more women in science

"It's empowering. They can think I did this myself, now I have the courage to try something else even greater," Barber said.

Barber and other outreach coordinators are looking forward to see how they can expand this program. Some future program ideas include focusing a coding workshop for adults and connecting this coding to Citizen Science projects.