Grant provides Earlham students access to satellite-assisted tools, enabling high-resolution map of campus farm, Press | Earlham College
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Grant provides Earlham students access to satellite-assisted tools, enabling high-resolution map of campus farm

October 30, 2020

UNAVCO 2Geology students at Earlham College are using state-of-the-art Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) tools on loan from a national non-profit research and educational consortium to produce high-resolution topography maps. Earlham is among the first colleges in the country to receive the tools as part of a nationwide initiative to train the future environmental geology workforce.  

Andy Moore, Earlham professor of geology was one of five professors selected to participate in the National Science Foundation-funded UNAVCO Geodesy Tools for Societal Issues (GETSI) field cohort 1. In addition to providing career-discerning opportunities for students, a goal of the project on campus is to produce maps that could optimize the growing operation at Miller Farm, Earlham’s experiential agricultural program. 

“If you grew up farming, you know that every field has problems,” Moore said. “There are some areas that are better suited for farming than others. A lot of it has to do with the drainage that existed long before someone decided to cut down trees and plant crops. These drainages can barely be seen on existing topography maps like Google Earth, but we know they are there.”

Using a drone and new GNSS tools on loan from UNAVCO, 10 students in Moore’s Earth Surfaces Processes class are attempting to create more sophisticated maps. The technology has the potential to take precise images with one-centimeter resolution, Moore says.

“These students are two years out from graduating and potentially becoming environmental geologists, working out in the field mapping remediation sites, sewer lines and research areas,” he said. “Basic map-making is a big part of what geologists do. It’s important they learn how to use cutting-edge equipment and learning what those tools can and can’t do.”

Course participant Cade Orchard, a geology and biology double-major from Muncie, Indiana, is preparing to become a paleontologist.

“This was one of the courses I've been looking forward to most here at Earlham,” Orchard said. “I need an understanding of geomorphology and surface processes for my future career and mapping and surveying is an important component of that. Both are crucial skills for any geologist, and I think the way Andy has prepared us will make us standout candidates to any employer or grad program.”

The mapping project at Miller Farm is the culmination of the different technologies and methods students have access to over the course of the semester.

“Now that we have GPS and drones, there's a tendency to think, ‘Oh, we don't need the old mapping equipment anymore, this is so quick and accurate,’ but the reality is a lot more complicated than that,” Orchard said. “I think the most important thing I picked up wasn't how to use the GPS from UNAVCO, but why I was using them and how much information they could accurately give me in a given situation.”

For Miller Farm, the project enhances experiential learning and its purpose of supporting courses in sustainable agriculture. The mapping project will help expand its growing operation while increasing yields and presence at the Richmond Farmers Market.  It follows in a series of efforts at the farm to improve the efficiency and sustainability, including construction of a high tunnel, storage shed and the implementation of a rain water recycling initiative. 

“This year, Miller Farm quadrupled its growing space and roughly doubled our gross income,” said Tony Noble, the manager of Miller Farm. “We've standardized most of our garden beds to 50 feet in length to aid in maintenance and planning.  The drone mapping will give us a new perspective we hope to use to increase our precision, saving time, seed money and growing space. Every year, our maps get a little more detailed.”

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