Outside the Classroom | Michigan Tech Magazines

What do graduates say helped them the most in their education? Sometimes it’s a single
project. Often it’s real-world research.

Many students learn through Senior Design, Enterprise, and co-op experiences. The
Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI) offers students the chance to see research in action and learn from some of the University’s
top scientists and project managers. Here are a few highlights of student research
at MTRI. 

Wildfire Tech

Enterprise, Senior Design, and courses specifically geared toward working with a client give Michigan Tech
students that coveted “real world” experience while they’re still in college. Beyond
gaining skills they’ll need in their careers, client-centric coursework connects students
to potential employers and provides an extra dose of purpose to their studies.

When Mary Ellen Miller, a research engineer and scientist at 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, which measures hydraulic conductivity—that is, how easily
water passes through soil—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. Consequently,
Miller took her quandary to Robert Pastel, associate professor of computer science, who brought the problem to his user interface design and implementation class. Pastel
recruits clients every year—and Miller has worked with students on four different
developments since the class began more than a decade ago.

A soil infiltrometer on recently burnt soil with a burnt forest in the background.
The website developed by Michigan Tech students to help soil scientists use soil infiltrometers
more efficiently at recent fire locations saw use at the Telegraph Fire in Arizona.
Photo credit: Mary Ellen Miller

“The goal is for the students to learn how to design and implement a user interface,”
Pastel says. “Our students really learn when they have clients and the users are someone
other than themselves.”

The class is structured into a series of prototypes that begin with sketching an idea
on paper and advance through to a functional design. Students not only learn user
interface development, they learn to work with a client and user experience experts.

Bryan Wandrych, a senior software engineering major, was a member of the team that helped solve Miller’s problem. The students
built a mobile-friendly website that allows scientists and engineers—including specialists on the U.S. Department
of the Interior (DOI) Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team—to use an infiltrometer
while simultaneously recording their data with ease and efficiency.

“With this website, we automated a two-person job down to one,” Wandrych says.

The students built the app on Zoom because of the remote nature of learning during
the pandemic—and they also got a crash course in soil science to be able to develop
an application that met the users’ needs.

“To design the website, we had to break down the work into three programmatic levels
of functionality,” Wandrych says. “Level one: Have a timer, collect data, and export
as a spreadsheet. Level two: Save data and be able to review it. Level three: Do a
lot more mathematics behind the scenes, like stats, polynomial regression, and curve
fitting if possible—all on different timelines.”

Though the background programming was complex, the website is all smooth usability
and beautiful simplicity—and its usefulness is earning attention. The DOI highlighted
the student-built product during a monthly BAER meeting, and the Michigan Department
of Transportation has expressed interest in integrating the website into their processes.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the U.S. Geological Survey have also discussed using the website.

“I’m really impressed with the work the student team did this year,” Miller says.
“I’m an applied scientist and I love applied tech.”

Vernal Pools

A pool of water in the forest.
Vernal pools, like the one shown here in the forest surrounding Pictured Rocks National
Lakeshore, are ephemeral, but also provide key habitat to numerous creatures each
spring. Photo credit: Rod Chimner

Despite their ephemeral nature, vernal pools—areas of standing water that form for
just weeks every spring—provide critical forest habitat, particularly for amphibians.
Vernal pools lack fish, which prey on amphibian eggs and insect larvae. In these small
and often shallow water bodies, the creatures that form the foundation of the food
chain start their lives.

Michigan Tech faculty and students have teamed up with research scientists at MTRI
to investigate these precious pools—not only in person, by hiking to them, but also
via remote sensing. Vernal pools are threatened by development and roadways. A number
of national lakeshore parks—Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks, Isle Royale, Indiana
Dunes, Apostle Islands, and Voyageurs—are keen to map the pools to protect the miniature
ecosystems that thrive in them.

“There is a food chain within the pools themselves,” says Laura Bourgeau-Chavez, MTRI senior research scientist. “A lot of species go there to reproduce, then live
somewhere else. If they don’t have those spaces, that’s how we end up with endangered

Bourgeau-Chavez uses depressional lidar integrated with two-season radar to map from
above what’s a vernal pool and what’s not. Radar works by bouncing a signal from a
satellite to the ground and back. Water gives a “bright bounce” in image post-processing
and allows researchers like Bourgeau-Chavez to create maps based on the information
without ever traveling to the location themselves. If one of these bounces stays bright
when the pool should be dry, the water body must be a wetland or a pond, not a vernal

Sam Kurkowski ’21 recently wrapped up her undergraduate degree at Michigan Tech in
applied ecology and will start her master’s degree in the fall. She spent several weeks this past
summer ground truthing data for Bourgeau-Chavez’s lidar/radar work under the guidance
of Rod Chimner, a professor in the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. 

In what was a grand camping trip in some of the most spectacular locations in the
upper Midwest, Kurkowski joined MTRI researchers to hunt for vernal pools, measure
their size and depth, and look for indicator species.

Fairy shrimp, salamanders, fingernail clams, and wood frogs are just a few of the
species Kurkowski and her fellow students found in vernal pools during their fieldwork.

Kurkowski says she’s interested in patterns—do vernal pools form based on specific
geology or forest type? Why do some pools provide excellent amphibian habitat while
others do not?—and she looks forward to continuing to ground truth for the project
next summer, returning to several sites and visiting a new one on Isle Royale.

“I love wetlands,” Kurkowski says. “I love learning about them. Even though they’re
very small on the landscape percentage-wise, they are so important for vegetation,
species, and water quality. It’s cool to see how something so small has a really big
impact on the environment.”

Drones for Archaeology

An aerial image of trees without leaves.
Michigan Tech and MTRI researchers are using drones to assist the U.S. Forest Service
with archaeological surveying in Hiawatha National Forest. Photo credit: Rick Dobson

When you think of archaeology, what image springs to mind? Does it include bespeckled
academics with floppy hats and bandannas clustered around a hole with shovels and

If that’s the case, it might be time to revisit your assumptions.

This summer, a group of Michigan Tech faculty, students, and MTRI scientists met in
the Hiawatha National Forest to conduct an archaeological survey—by drone. The project
was initiated by the Hiawatha National Forest in consultation with the Bay Mills Indian
Community and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Paula Carrick.  

As a federal land management agency, the U.S. Forest Service has a responsibility
to assess the effects of vegetation management projects on heritage resources and
to collaborate with tribal governments, academic institutions, and other non-federal
stakeholders to design heritage resource protection measures.

To achieve this goal, the MTU researchers worked in partnership with the U.S. Forest
Service and both the Bay Mills Indian Community and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of
Chippewa Indians to assess cultural features within the forest.

“We’ll use the different survey data to build ‘bare earth’ surface models of the forest
floor in the survey area,” says Tim Scarlett, associate professor of archaeology and anthropology. “While lidar and photogrammetry
are essential tools for modern archaeology and cultural resources management, we don’t
yet know whether the camera or the laser will be better suited for this task.”

Enter Rick Dobson, MTRI research scientist, who, in addition to flying the drones (mounted with lidar
sensors and digital cameras) over the forest, is evaluating the quality of the resulting
models. He’ll apply new algorithmic analyses to them to identify specific types of
small cultural features.

Photogrammetry provides a much higher-resolution 3D point cloud than lidar, but the
advantage of lidar is its ability to “see” through the forest canopy. For example,
the 3D point clouds created by lidar laser pulses have helped archaeologists find
Mayan ruins in the dense rainforests of Mexico and Central America.

“Drones enhance inspections and other tasks. They make it safer and they make it more
objective,” Dobson says. “The Forest Service wants to do this to preserve these features
for the Native American community so loggers don’t go in and unwittingly destroy archaeological
features. This survey helps to preserve and document where those features are.”

Marie Richards, a professional archaeologist and doctoral student in industrial heritage
and archaeology, also works as the repatriation and historic preservation specialist
for the Sault Tribe. She attended the Hiawatha survey in her professional role to
watch the process and make sure human remains and cultural objects were not disturbed.
She said using remote sensing methods like drone surveys helps tribal communities
protect cultural sites.

“This snapshot of the area helps us understand the area going in,” she says. “The
more you know going in, the less you have to disturb things. Native communities were
removed from our land and our cultural landscape. As stakeholders in this project,
the tribes are interested in data coming back to them to participate in land management.”

Richards, Scarlett, and Dobson hope this approach can be applied broadly across federal
lands to better understand the significance of cultural features across the landscape.

Underground Robots

Two small, wheeled robots encounter large boulders blocking their path in a darkened tunnel in a virtual environment.
During the Subterranean (SubT) Challenge, the BARCS team robots navigated a labyrinthine
simulated Tunnel Circuit, designed to test the robots’ performance when encountering
obstacles and hazards such as rubble and vertical shafts.

Electrical engineering major Nathan Sukaria is the newest member of the competitive robotics team BARCS,
which has won awards in several rounds on the virtual track in the Subterranean (SubT)
Challenge hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). MTRI research
scientist Sarah Kitchen leads the team, which heads into the final competition this fall—an epic interface
of mining, urban, and cave simulations with $1.5 million in prizes at its end. 

“The biggest challenge that helped me grow was in applying the computer skills from
my courses to an actual work environment,” Sukaria says, explaining that he builds
on skills in Linux and Git while collaborating. “Now I have to keep track of different
branches and versions of code as they’re modified in real time by other members of
the team.”

The project’s overall goal is to program robots to navigate underground, in almost
total darkness and with many obstacles—a difficult feat. Kitchen’s team, including
MTRI researchers Meryl Spencer and Reid Sawtell, Sukaria, and another student, works on sensing technology and how to best coordinate
a fleet of robots. In an underground simulation, they have a group of drones to coordinate
and accurately sense the environment, explore the space, and efficiently report back.
The fleet has to find specific objects—mine shafts, subway stations, or caves—and
return with clear images and the right location. The systems track and virtual track
competitors do compete, but they also provide data, feedback, and modifications that
DARPA’s team can use to better connect sims and real spaces. 

“I have some hands-on robotics experience with the Robotics Systems Enterprise at Tech, but in my coursework I mainly learned about the basics and the theory,”
Sukaria says. “The opportunity to see how teams can come together to develop robotics
solutions to real-world problems has definitely helped solidify what I have learned
so far in my education at Tech.”

Connected, Autonomous, and Electric Vehicles

Lidar imaging generates lines that frame underground tunnels.
On the virtual SubT competition track, the robots aren’t real—but the technology is.
Using multiple cameras and sensors, the MTRI team navigates more complex digital spaces
than what treads-on-the-ground robots are currently capable of.

Working with the American Center for Mobility (ACM) and U.S. Department of Energy
National Laboratories, MTRI studies the energy-efficiency potential for connected,
autonomous, and electric vehicles (CAEV).

“The goal of the ACM CAEV Validation Project is to provide real-world validation for
algorithms and models developed that, through controlling cars’ velocity with connected
and autonomous car technology, would reduce energy consumption for vehicles,” says
Eva Muller. 

Muller knows her stuff. A computer science major with a minor in math and a member of the Aerospace Enterprise, Muller joined Bill Buller’s MTRI research group to help improve energy efficiency in real vehicles in test track
conditions. Researchers have considered how cooperative driving strategies could reduce
energy consumption, but there are not enough connected vehicles on the road to confirm
these models with empirical measurements. Michigan Tech and ACM have a few vehicles
to make measurements, and many more virtual vehicles to participate in the experiments
with complex traffic interactions. The virtual vehicles exist only in simulation on
a model of the test track. However, both virtual and real vehicles communicate through
the network at ACM, responding to each other to create realistic traffic conditions
in mixed-reality tests.

“Witnessing the inefficiency and flaws in daily transportation, it’s been fun to look
through these algorithms we are testing on the track and apply the different methods
in my commute to Ann Arbor every day—I’m sure my bank account appreciates the money
I’m saving on gas!” Muller says, adding that she finds the project’s mixed-reality
approach engaging. “Setting up a virtual connected car environment that is able to
implement so many real-world conditions, like road grade, network latency, and vehicle
dynamics, results in a really powerful tool for the future of testing connected, autonomous,
and electric vehicles.”

Muller says applying her coursework has been a rewarding challenge and, looking ahead
in her career, her MTRI experiences will motivate her to take projects a step further.

“I work alongside people who come to the office or go out in the field because they
are excited and passionate about their work, people who put in the extra hours because
they understand the significance and potential of their research efforts, and people
who continually contribute new knowledge about the world in order to solve issues
encountered in daily life by real people like themselves,” Muller says. “This has
motivated me to view college education as a tool rather than a piece of paper and
to expand the concepts I learn in the classroom into personal projects.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.


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