Following a forest wildfire, the loss of protective vegetation and fire-induced soil hydrophobicity (the property of repelling water rather than absorbing it) can severely affect watersheds and result in soil erosion, water quality issues, and flooding hazards.
To quickly respond to these potential dangers, following wildfires on federal lands Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) are deployed by the U.S. Forest Service or the Department of the Interior to rapidly assess potential risks to human life, property, and natural resources.
Among other measurements, the BAER teams test for hydraulic conductivity, useful for understanding how water moves through the soil and to identify hydrophobic soils, which contribute to an increase in post-fire runoff and erosion.
In their work, BAER response teams use an instrument called a Mini Disk Infiltrometer (MDI) to measure the volume of water that infiltrates into the soil during a selected time period. Using the instrument requires that the user hold the instrument upright and at the same time keep track of and record both time and water volume.
A Clever Solution
When Mary Ellen Miller, a BAER responder and research engineer with the Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI), went into the field during 2020, she realized that using a soil infiltrometer alone—rather than with a partner because of social distancing requirements—was much more difficult. Watching the infiltrometer while trying to operate a stopwatch and record the data proved too much for one person to do well.
What Miller and soil scientists needed was an app that could record and export data in concert with the instrument. She took her quandary to Computer Science faculty member Robert Pastel, who brought the problem to his user interface design and implementation class.
In response, Michigan Tech students have created an app to make this task easier. Members of the team were Software Engineering majors August Miller ’22, Harry Taylor ’22, Richard Weycker ’22, Jade Wang ‘23, and Bryan Wandrych ’21.
“The goal for the students was to learn how to design and implement a user interface,” says Robert Pastel, Computer Science faculty member. “Our students really learn when they have clients and the users are someone other than themselves.”
“This project is a React-based web app which acts as a data collector and formula calculator for those interested in soil infiltration,” says student Harrison Taylor. “In other words, it’s a fancy calculator that tells you how easily water enters the soil.”
“By keeping track of time, the app makes it easier for the user to collect data,” adds student August Miller. “With the new app the user can pay attention to the water volume, and at the correct time the app will sound a notification. The user can then enter the water volume reading into the app, which keeps track of user defined replicates and calculates average water infiltration in order to determine if a site has hydrophobic soils.”
“The application is also a handy way of temporarily storing reports that can be downloaded later,” adds Miller. “Because it is a progressive web app, it can even be used offline, which was critical to the application as many real-world readings with the infiltrometer device are conducted in remote areas.”
“The students did a good job creating a tool that can be used by BAER teams to test for hydrophobicity or measure effective hydraulic conductivity,” says Mary Ellen Miller. “I have been working with Robert and his students for many years. They have always created clever solutions to make my work easier.”
A Year-long Project
“We began working on this project in September 2021,” says Taylor. “We met with Dr. Pastel every two weeks to plan which tasks needed to be done over a two-week period. We also communicated using Discord and met as a team three times a week. Our team had two roles: developer and team leader. I was a developer and primarily implemented the user interface and made sure the user’s workflow was intuitive and smooth.”
At the start, progress was slow as none of the students had developed using React, the framework used to develop the project. “It was only after our team leader, August Miller, suggested that we just ‘get in there and get our hands dirty’ by taking the time to mess around with React to see what it can, that the work became less frustrating,” says Taylor.
“August was a key aspect in our success with this project,” says Taylor. “His careful planning and team organization made the development process smooth, and he was always the one to perceive the way forward in times of difficulty. He is the kind of team leader that is truly hard to find: a humble, faithful, empathetic problem solver that isn’t afraid to confidently lead forward.”
To design the website, the team broke down the work into three programmatic levels of functionality: Level One: Have a timer, collect data, and export as a spreadsheet; Level Two: Save data and be able to review it; and Level Three: Do a lot more mathematics behind the scenes, like stats, polynomial regression, and curve fitting if possible—all on different timelines.”
“Dr. Pastel provided us with many learning resources for development, and envisioned meaningful features for us to implement,” Taylor says. “He also was the main communicator with the BAER scientists, who were testing and critiquing our app. Dr. Pastel was very encouraging and he was a great source of help and motivation.”
About August Miller
August Miller ’21 says he was drawn to Michigan Tech by the Keweenaw landscape, the feel of the Houghton community, and Tech’s reputation as a school. Because of the many hands-on learning opportunities at Michigan Tech, he says he feels very prepared to begin his career.
Miller loves the creative freedom that is software engineering. “It requires understanding so much of the world. I do a lot of creative writing, and the overlap between telling a story and developing a program is huge,” he says. “In both, we must define problems and present solutions in ways that the reader or user internalizes. This requires an intricate comfort with words and programming that has always captivated me. It’s all about finding creative solutions to the problems real people are dealing with.”
During his undergraduate education, Miller was involved with Copper Country Coders, teaching a video game development course to middle- and high-school students. He was also a member of the Triangle Fraternity, serving as academic chair.
“My brothers in Triangle Fraternity have been a huge help to me,” notes Miller. Just having other guys to talk to, hang out with, brainstorm a particular problem, or rubber-duck some code was unbelievably helpful to my motivation, mental state, and creativity this year.”
Miller is now employed as a software developer by Epic Systems in Verona, Wisc. His is also helping out a friend and mentor who began a video-game start up last year, as well as developing his own apps which can be viewed and downloaded at green-panda-studios.itch.io.
In spring 2022, Miller graduated with a BS in Software Engineering and a minor in Mathematical Sciences.
About Harrison Taylor
When he applied for admission to Michigan Tech, Harrison Taylor was already convinced that Tech was the best computer science school in Michigan. And when he got started at the University, he says he was happy to discover that he was right!
“There are so many great people in this school,” he notes. “It sounds cheesy, but the value of a Michigan Tech education is really in the people you meet along the way. You gain the advantage of reliable folks who truly care about your development and wellbeing.”
Taylor plans to pursue a career in web development and he’s begun at Monte Consulting, Houghton. “I’d love to serve them for as long as I can; they are wonderful people,” he says.