Nov 05 2019
Data Analytics

Data Analytics: The Newest Tool of Aquaponic Agriculture

The University of Connecticut taps Splunk to improve operations at a student-run farm.

Colleges across the country are looking for creative ways to give students hands-on, real-world experience using technology to solve problems. It makes sense: Proficiency in this area is one of the most in-demand skills in the workforce.

Jonathan Moore, academic director of the management information systems program at the University of Connecticut, developed a program that teaches data analytics and, in a unique twist, lets students hone their skills by helping fellow students.

Previously, Moore ran the school’s student IT help desk, working with undergraduates who provided technical support to students for campus technologies such as email, software, wireless connections and learning management systems. 

Today, Moore’s students are using data analytics to support peers in another academic program at UConn. The initiative is illustrative of how far analytics use cases have come in just the past few years — and the ways in which vendors like Splunk are making their tools accessible and intuitive enough to be used not just by data scientists but also by learners still finding their footing in IT. 

“It’s giving students relevant skills, moving the needle on curriculum and academia, and breaking down academic siloes,” Moore said in an interview with EdTech at Splunk’s recent .conf19 conference in Las Vegas. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Get three tips for a better data analytics program.

UConn Business School Workshops Focus on Emerging Tech

Several years ago, Moore launched a program at the University of Connecticut School of Business called OPIM Innovate (the moniker refers to the school’s operations, information and decisions department). The program aims to give students experience with new, business-changing technologies, including augmented reality, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, microcontrollers and data analytics. 

OPIM Innovate started as a series of workshops, where students came to nosh on free pizza while learning about topics in IT and business. Over time, the school began developing pilot — and then permanent — classes based on popular workshops. 

That’s how UConn’s MIS students came to use data analytics to help support an aquaponics facility at the school. The aquaponics greenhouse is part of Spring Valley Student Farm, which sits 5 miles from the main campus and fosters student learning around environmental and sustainability issues. (It also grows organic produce for use in the school’s dining facilities.) 

Hydroponics is the cultivation of plants in water, while aquaponics involves the rearing of aquatic animals in a hydroponic environment. The idea is that plants will use nitrogen-rich fish waste products as fertilizer. However, when the facility first opened, students didn’t see the positive agriculture outcomes they were expecting, and the farm turned to MIS students to bring data analytics to bear on the problem

Ryan O’Connor, a Splunk engineer and adjunct faculty member at the school, designed a class project that used sensors and Splunk software to monitor conditions at the aquaponics facility. The program was supported by Splunk4Good, which donates millions of dollars each year in software licenses, training, support and education to nonprofit organizations and educational institutions around the world. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how the University of Illinois is expanding data analytics on campus.

Connected Sensors and Analytics Software Track Farm Metrics

Over the summer, before the class started, Moore and O’Connor put the infrastructure in place to support analytics, expanding wireless connectivity at the farm and building a prototype system to track metrics. Then, once the class started, MIS students began collecting, monitoring and analyzing data from IoT sensors to provide real-time insights on metrics such as pH balance, water temperature, water quality and UV light

The students quickly pinpointed simple problems affecting the facility’s success. For one, the greenhouse got colder at night than previously thought. Also, students were leaving the door open when they weren’t supposed to, which allowed animals to get in overnight and damage the plants. 

O’Connor noted that Splunk allows students to crunch months’ worth of data in less than a second. But, perhaps just as important, the Splunk AR mobile tool lets students see real-time metrics on their smartphones. 

“It’s great for instantaneous readings,” said O’Connor. In a typical aquaponics setup, he notes, students would have to take time to individually measure and record different metrics — using a variety of tools to measure, say, temperature and pH balance. “But if you have sensors already in there, and they’re sending the data to Splunk, that’s saving a lot of time.”

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