Eight summer research fellows collaborate on Cleveland Environmental Dashboard Project

October 20, 2020
Youssouf Doumbia
Screenshot of 10 people in Zoom meeting.

This past summer eight students, working from locations across the country, joined with environmental studies professor John Petersen ’88 and project manager Rowan Hannan to play a critical role in advancing the development of the Cleveland Environmental Dashboard project which was just awarded its third round of funding from the Cleveland Foundation .

While the effects of COVID-19 have resulted in the cancellation of many fellowships and internships that are critical in building real-world academic and career experiences, this group of students pulled together remotely to continue the work to make the Cleveland Foundation grant a success.

The team of Oberlin students included computer science majors, graphic design artists, and environmental studies majors, who developed computer code associated with Cleveland Citywide Dashboard by enhancing features of the Community Voices software, developing new content, adding a range of new graphical animations, and further improving educational content that is at the heart of the Cleveland Environmental Dashboard exhibits.

Environmental Dashboard is a technology and an approach to generating ecofeedback designed to engage, educate, motivate, and empower people to embrace sustainable thought and make informed choices that conserve resources.

‘‘In spite of the fact that I have never physically met several of these summer research fellows, I don't think I have ever developed a more unified team,’’ said Petersen. This sentiment could be seen across the board when talking with the students on the team. 

Adar Toulloch, a second-year coder for the team, was pleasantly surprised with the experience of working remotely. ‘‘I had never met anyone on the team before starting my work with Environmental Dashboard,’’ said Toulloch. ‘‘However, I was still able to develop a relationship with the members of the team despite being home in New Jersey.’’

Like so many students, Sam Craig, a senior from West Lafayette, Indiana, had his summer plans canceled because of the pandemic. It forced him to postpone his plans to study abroad in New Zealand. The team leader for coding, Craig decided he would continue his work with the Environmental Dashboard. Looking to make the best of going virtual, his team ‘‘dealing mostly with data flow,’’ had ‘‘much of [its] work on the Internet, rendering the task perfectly to do remotely.’’  

One of the challenges, however, was that the display was hundreds of miles away from the programmers, and working on its output required a little innovation. ‘‘At times, our project manager would have to set up a virtual video call in order for us to see the outputs of the display we were working on and implement tweaks remotely,’’ said Craig. The team also tested the remote controls for the display from their various locations and watched the display perform the commands. 

Petersen breaks down the virtualization of the team’s work explaining, ‘‘A lot of the credit goes to both Hannan and our senior student programmer Craig. They did a phenomenal job of leading our daily Zoom ‘standups’ in which each team member shared progress, challenges they were encountering in their work, and we all shared a little bit about how we were doing in our lives. Oberlin students are always amazing and always a great privilege to work with, but the stress of working under COVID-19 and the creativity that emerged really brought out just how talented and special members of this community are.’’

This is the third time in three years Oberlin College has been awarded a grant from the Cleveland Foundation to support the Cleveland Environmental Dashboard project, which seeks to inspire and empower environmental stewardship and develop STEM education programming in the metro-Cleveland area.

The $50,000 award continues the partnership with Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC) and supports the implementation of a new Environmental Dashboard being developed in partnership with the Cleveland Metroparks at its Watershed Stewardship Center .

An initial grant of $120,000 from the Cleveland Foundation in 2018, allowed for the installation of Environmental Dashboard technology as a major exhibit at GLSC. A building dashboard communicates real-time energy use in the facility. Cleveland Citywide Dashboard is an animated map of environmental conditions in the Cleveland metro region, and Community Voices features the actions Cleveland residents are taking to develop greater community sustainability. Oberlin students on the Dashboard team have played a critical role in all aspects of developing and assessing the exhibit.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced Oberlin and GLSC to reimagine their collaboration. Despite a variety of challenges, Petersen believes the team has formed a strong bond.

In addition to Petersen and Hannan, the Oberlin College Environmental Dashboard team includes Professor of Psychology and Environmental Studies Cindy Frantz, who focuses on project evaluation, and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Rumi Shammin, who plays important roles in content review and experimental design.

Students who were summer fellows on the Environmental Dashboard project include Sam Craig, team leader for the computer coding team; Madeleine Faubert, graphic designer; Dorian Levine, computer coder; Ethan Michel, computer coder; Maxwell Mitchell, senior computer coder; Deena Saadi, research coordinator and Community Voices developer; and Adar Tulloch, computer coder.

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