Sustainability has grown into a hot topic around the globe. The concept can be applied to a myriad of activities, but the students who participated in the Sustainable Biomass Production and Processing (SBPP) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) had their eyes on agriculture.
Sustainable agricultural practices are comprised of many intricate details, and SBPP participants examined how current practices, like harvesting and storing biomass, can be improved to increase the production and sustainability of land.
Hallie Adams, senior in geography—environment and natural resource management at Western Washington University, worked on a project called “Identifying Field Property-Yield Relationships Using Clustering Techniques.” Adams used spatial data analysis and data mining techniques to provide information that will encourage using precision farming and management zones on agricultural fields.
Her project analyzed a 48-hectare soybean field in Michigan based on factors like soil and biological properties. She then assigned specific management practices, like irrigation or fertilization, for each zone within the field based on her findings. If landowners were to implement these practices, the sustainability and productivity of the field would increase.
“This research is important because it is one step toward more productive and sustainable agricultural practices,” says Adams. “Although the step may be small, it exemplifies the need to address the major concerns—production and sustainability—in modern agriculture.”
Adams continues, “This has really been such a valuable way to strengthen my skill set and experience new ways of learning. I feel very lucky to work in a lab where people are so willing to help and always be there for support throughout my research.”
For Alex Knicker, an agricultural and biological engineering student at the University of Illinois at Urbana. Champaign, the REU provided a lesson in initiative. “You really have to motivate yourself to learn all you can about your project, and sometimes it can be hard to take the initiative to do independent research like background readings,” says Knicker. “However, those kinds of activities are essential to understanding all aspects of research, and they make you more confident when answering questions about your project.”
Adams and Knicker both have a passion for sustainability and feel SBPP was the perfect choice to learn more about the topic.
“My academic interests are all things related to renewable energy, environmental preservation, and sustainability,” says Knicker. “This REU definitely solidified my desire to work in that area and attend graduate school, and one professor even helped me decide to continue studying my current major.”
“I am completely enthralled by natural processes and ecosystems services,” says Adams. “The atmosphere of this REU is very forward-thinking and focuses on real-world application. It puts a strong emphasis on investing in the minds of participants and this generation so we can be active problem-solvers and create new ideas in the field of agricultural and biosystems engineering.”
Those types of new ideas were not restricted to a lab in Ames, but were explored further when the group traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to attend the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) Annual International Meeting. In return for preparing, presenting, and understanding every element of their research, students were exposed to advanced research findings, networking opportunities, panel discussions, and much more during their four-day trip.
“I learned a lot more about the different topics within my field at ASABE, and I saw some things I’ve never heard of before,” says Knicker. “That’s the really great thing about these REUs and the opportunities that go with them—you might discover something you’re really interested in.”