Faculty and student collaboration results in re-engineered software used by researchers internationally

November 6, 2013

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PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Sixteen students and two faculty members at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville collaborated on a project that resulted in re-engineered software used by researchers internationally. The project was led by Dr. Kun Tian, assistant professor of computer science and software engineering at UW-Platteville, and Dr. Evan Larson, assistant professor of geography and co-director of the Tree-Ring, Earth, and Environmental Sciences Laboratory at UW-Platteville. The students involved in the project were enrolled in Tian’s spring semester software maintenance course. 

Through the course project, Tian's students redesigned software used by researchers to manage and analyze fire history data to better understand the role of fire in the forests of the world. The software produced by Tian’s class has now been integrated into a specialized software suite that is used by researchers around the world.

“Researchers worldwide are very interested in reconstructing fire history based on tree-ring data because it provides valuable information and insight into the conditions that cause fires to burn and how these fires affect our environment,” said Larson. “We need to understand direct human impacts on fire activity, such as fire suppression, land use, and grazing, as well as how both natural and human-caused climate change are changing how fire works in our world. There is a critical need for software that can systematically process and analyze large volumes of fire history data.”

Software previously used by tree-ring researchers to manage and analyze fire history data was developed by Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer, professor of geography and director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Science at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. That was over a decade ago, however, and technology has changed. “Henri’s software was an incredible tool when it came out, but now only runs on certain computer operation systems that are almost archaic by modern standards,” said Larson.

A federal project to create a new software system called Fire History Analysis and Exploration System is ongoing with the support of the University of Arizona, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United States Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. FHAES, as designed by this group, is a modernized program capable of storing, sorting, and analyzing massive amounts of data on any operating system. The group ran out of funding, however, before completing the program.

When Dr. Grissino-Mayer arrived at UW-Platteville as a speaker in the Paleoecology Lecture series coordinated by Larson in the fall of 2012, it was a perfect opportunity for Grissino-Mayer; Tian; Larson; Dr. Joe Clifton, chair of the UW-Platteville computer science and software engineering department; and computer science faculty members to discuss the potential of re-engineering the data-entry module from Grissino-Mayer’s original software and integrating it with the FHAES software.

Tian and Clifton quickly recognized that it would be an excellent opportunity to provide software maintenance students with a challenging project that would give them hands-on experience redesigning/developing software that would have an impact on meaningful scientific research. Tian decided to incorporate the project into his software maintenance course.

After students in the course had a solid understanding of the project parameters and had completed practice work in software development, they studied the domains of the project. Larson gave the students a presentation about tree-rings and tree-ring research as well as the importance of fire history data and the need for computer software to adequately manage and store it. Following, Tian gave the students a detailed description of the project and grading criteria to ensure software requirements were clear. The students were divided into four groups. Each group had a project leader and designed its own plan. The software the students designed had to meet industrial standards, which ensured they designed high quality products. It also helped prepare them for their future careers by becoming familiar with current standards required in industry.

“This project gave the students practical project experience beyond the scope of the classroom,” said Tian. “We worked like an actual company, with each of us having a special role. Dr. Larson was the customer who had requested a specific product. The students were the computer software developers who were responsible for designing a high quality product that would meet the customer's needs. I was the project manager, responsible for directing the project and making sure the students had everything they needed throughout the learning, designing and implementing of the project.”

“This was the first time a class project I worked on could have real-world consequences,” said Alex Beatty, a senior software engineering major at UW-Platteville from Richland Center, Wis. “This spurred everyone in the class to try to make systems that someone else would like to use. The biggest thing I learned from the project was the importance of customer interaction. When you are building or rebuilding something that other people are going to be using, you need to think about how easy it will be for them to learn it and use it.”

As in the business world, in the final project phase, the students had to present their designs to their customer, Larson. “All four student projects satisfied the majority of the software engineering requirements for functionality,” said Tian. “One group's product stood out because in addition to meeting the software requirements, the students had provided excellent customer service. The students communicated with Dr. Larson regularly, soliciting comments from him that provided them with feedback to improve the software design. Their efforts to maintain a connection with the customer resulted in an improved product design that was more usable. This shows that while technical skills are essential to produce a high quality product, communication skills are just as, if not more, important for success in today's global economy.”

The software designed by the group of students was sent to the director of the FHAES project and has been formally integrated into software that is used by researchers worldwide to manage and analyze fire history data. The software provides a way for them to enter and store fire history, check and summarize the data, make fire charts, evaluate fire seasonality and fire intervals and determine relationships between fire and climate variables.

“This successful collaborative project has also laid the foundation for extensive opportunities for future collaborations,” said Larson.

Contact: Dr. Evan Larson, assistant professor, UW-Platteville geography program, (608) 342-6139, larsonev@uwplatt.edu and Dr. Kun Tian, assistant professor of computer science and software engineering, UW-Platteville, (608) 342-1625, tianku@uwplatt.edu

Written by: Laurie Hamer, UW-Platteville College of Liberal Arts and Education, (608) 342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu

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