Up and Away: the Power of Interdisciplinary Work

Recently the SIF Web Editors highlighted the project that will be one of my main focuses during my time with the SIF program: the climate lab weather balloon. This project will deploy a moored weather balloon as a way to collect real-time data about the troposphere for use in an intro level lab. This project is part of an ongoing active learning project that aims to increase interactivity in the most popular general science lab on campus (Geography 1112 – Intro to Weather and Climate). The move to make Geography 1112 an active learning environment is motivated by two goals. The first is to hopefully increase the on campus presence of the department responsible for the labs: the Department of Geosciences, of which I am a part. The second is simply to improve the quality of the lab through the application of active learning. As explained in a post by my SIF colleague Monica Cook, switching classes from a lecture format to a more active format will likely increase student performance, especially among minority and first generation students.

But SIF wasn’t where I first learned of or started thinking about the balloon project. The idea was first pitched to me by the professor in charge of the Geography 1112 labs: Dr. Jeremy Diem. You see, before I was a SIF program fellow, I was a teaching assistant with the Department of Geosciences. I taught two lab sections of Geography 1112 and worked with (and still work with) Dr. Diem as my thesis advisor. We had discussions about how he wanted to improve the 1112 labs. He mentioned the balloon idea and it got me thinking. I immediately thought it would be a really cool way to showcase how science works. I could even conceive of how to build the apparatus necessary to launch such a balloon. But Dr. Diem’s vision was more ambitious than a balloon. He wanted weather data collected by the balloon to be displayed in real time. He wanted the exercise seamlessly integrated into the labs. He wanted a balloon that could go high above downtown and return without incident.

I knew how to build a mooring system to send and return the balloon, but I had no conception of how to transmit the data in real time, much less integrate the whole thing into one of the labs. That is where the SIF program has come in. While I have the knowledge to work the mechanics of the balloon and the background on how it fits in with the labs, the project needed others to actually work. Another SIF program fellow, Megan Smith, is using her computer science expertise to create the instrumentation and make a system for getting the data in real time (you can see an update of her work on this and other projects on her blog). An instructional designer from the Center for Instructional Innovation, Taylor Burch, is also assisting by helping integrate this activity into the lab it is meant to support.

This is why the SIF program is so important. By collecting motivated people from so many different fields, the program can take a project that seems too difficult to achieve, and makes it happen. The program takes ideas and improves on them by bringing in different perspectives. This happens with all sorts of projects. 3D Atlanta combines technical knowledge of 3D modelling with archival research. The GSU growth map brought together SIF program fellows from several fields to produce something that has become a part of the university’s capital campaign. This interdisciplinary focus leads SIF projects to create such high quality product, and those products are valuable, not only to the GSU community, but to the Atlanta and Georgia community as a whole.

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