Sophomore's field research looks at environmental change

Unlike the majority of college students, Kimmie Bowen saw summer vacation not as a time for rest and relaxation, but as a great academic opportunity. The Penn State Brandywine rising sophomore and meteorology major recently teamed up with Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Laura Guertin to conduct fieldwork monitoring local environmental change.

Bowen and Guertin started the Picture Post Project at the campus in May. It's a NASA-funded citizen science program that encourages monitoring the environment and sharing observations and discoveries through digital photography. The student-and-professor team join other organizations and students from across the country in recording local environmental change, contributing to a nation-wide science network.

A picture post is an eight-sided platform used to take repeat photographs of a particular landscape. With the help of campus groundskeeper Charles Daly, four picture posts were installed on the campus in various locations, which were chosen based on future construction project areas. Bowen is tasked with taking a set of nine pictures at all post locations each week, uploading the photos to the Picture Post website and analyzing the environmental changes captured in the pictures.

"There are some changes that you really wouldn't notice just by walking around campus," Bowen explained. "But with the photos, you can really document those changes over time and how often they happen."

With construction plans proposed for future residence halls and a student union building, the team is establishing an environmental baseline of the campus' landscape to document environmental changes pre- and post-construction.

"For me, the significance is getting students excited about what's in their own backyard," Guertin said. "This is a great opportunity for us to use our campus as an outdoor classroom. What I hope, as a scientist, is that this project generates conversation about the environment and gets more people aware of their surroundings. It's such a simple idea, but it's so powerful in what it can yield."

Both researchers explained that one of the most exciting aspects of this project is that it falls under the category of "citizen science," meaning anyone on campus can contribute data. All that is needed is a smartphone or camera and students, faculty, staff and campus visitors can upload photos to the Picture Post website via the mobile Picture Post app or a computer.

"We'll be taking photos to document the current environmental status of the campus before construction projects begin, but anyone on campus can pitch in and take photos to contribute," Guertin said.

"The more photos we get the better our data will be," Bowen added. 

For Guertin, there's no end in sight for the project. Bowen plans to stay on board for another year until transitioning to University Park to complete her degree program.

"Brandywine is great place to get an undergraduate research experience," Bowen said. "You don't have to be in your junior or senior year to get involved. This project is giving me a head start."