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ISWS Seminar | The Connection Between the Next Revolution in Environmental Instrumentation and STEM Education | John Selker

Event Type
PRI's 2024 Distinguished Lecture Series
Illinois Room, Illinois State Water Survey, 2204 Griffith Dr., Champaign, IL 61820-7463
wifi event
Feb 28, 2024   3:00 - 4:30 pm  
John Selker
Originating Calendar
Illinois State Water Survey events

Recent years have provided a confluence of technologies that should transform environmental sensing. This is an opportunity that must be addressed both from technical and social perspectives: technology provides the ingredients, but the most challenging problems are the human organization in creating designs, disseminating designs, and producing tools accessible in cost and complexity. The relevant and transformative technologies include sharable digital files that can readily become physical objects (through 3D printing); low-cost sensor technologies are ever more accurate and less expensive; wireless communication has become ubiquitous and capable; and there is a growing community of researchers who seek to apply these capacities to advance scientific observations. Synergistically, many undergraduates are coming to college to take part in making the world more resilient to climate change and reversing degraded ecologies.

While the prospects for environmental measurement (and understanding) through distributed sensing are unprecedented, stubborn barriers persist to developing measurement systems and adopting these transformative sensing technologies. The Openly Published Environmental Sensing Lab (OPEnS, founded in 2016) is a federally funded initiative where 30-40 undergraduate engineering students help researchers expand instrumentation capabilities. Mentoring and guidance are intensive, even throughout the COVID pandemic: the lab employs a significant fraction of the efforts of the PI (Dr. Selker), the lab director (Dr. Udell), the lab manager, and the facilities manager in its operation. Weekly groups of 2-5 students meet with one member of the lab leadership for in-depth progress and challenges. From this accountable environment grew best practices and collaborative problem-solving. The roughly 15 OPEnS projects span challenges presented by the USA, Africa, and Europe. The OPEnS lab model for prototyping is centered on undergraduate engineering students who collaborate with agricultural, ecological, and geoscience researchers to create transformational advances in instrumentation. A central tenant of the lab is that undergraduate students can be especially successful working on well-defined problems, founded in the client’s specifications/requirements. Most of the undergraduate students in the lab go on to be authors (many first authors) on scientific presentations, papers, and even undergraduate-led patent applications. While we were aiming to address environmental sensing needs, we have seen that one of the greatest impacts of OPEnS has been on student experience. Students are getting invaluable first-person discovery, and we are bringing dozens of talented engineers to earth science problems. In this talk, we ask how to bring in a broader community of students to the OPEnS experience. We ask how we can lift our goals to work globally through the establishment of collaborating labs and companies. OPEnS is a work in progress that each year has made significant shifts in its operational model. We hope that this lecture will stimulate conversations leading to the next transformative step as we seek to address critical problems in environmental sensing and technical education.

John Selker is an OSU Distinguished Professor of Biological and Ecological Engineering (College of Agricultural Sciences, 31 years) and co-Director of both The Center for Transformative Environmental Monitoring Programs ( and the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory (, and PI of the Openly Published Environmental Sensing Laboratory (currently employing 40 undergraduates - Selker has worked in >20 countries across five continents. Focus areas include environmental instrumentation, groundwater processes, and ecohydrology. Selker has published >230 peer-reviewed articles, is the president of the AGU Hydrology Section (7,000 members), and has done a raft of other things only academics worry about. He loves making things, like new environmental sensing systems and wooden bowls.

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