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Stanford Earth launches new Big Data intro course

The class is designed for students from any major or background who want to understand how data analytics can help solve challenges impacting Earth and its inhabitants.

By
Danielle Torrent Tucker
January 9, 2017
Data visualization showing vegetation patterns in the United States
<p>From west to east, this data visualization moves from true color to false color infrared to show healthier vegetation appearing in deeper hues of red than lighter or less vigorous vegetation. The data were prepared in Google Earth Engine using about 100,000 Landsat images taken over 11 months and the visualization was assembled using GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP).</p>

Big Data, which includes massive sets of information from sources like archives, satellites, smart phones, and remote-sensing devices, has become cheaper and more accessible than ever. With the integration of statistics, simulations, and machine learning, Big Data can help solve major problems that confront our world.

It is a critical skillset for the next generation. But how do you work with Big Data?

A new 1-credit introductory course titled Know Your Planet: Big Earth in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences hopes to answer that question. Big Earth — a play on Big Data — explores how new techniques advance research on water resources, sustainable food production, renewable energy, and more. It is designed for students from any major or background who want to understand how Big Data can help solve challenges that impact our planet and the people on it.

“When I started my PhD in geophysics, I hadn’t taken an Earth science class since seventh grade,” said radio glaciologist Dustin Schroeder, an assistant professor who uses ice-penetrating radar to study glaciers and ice sheets. “I was into instruments and observations and data, and I discovered that the Earth is a cool thing to make measurements of.”

Schroeder is one of four Stanford Earth faculty members lecturing in the course, Earth 1B, which takes place Wednesdays from 2:30 to 3:20 p.m. during Winter Quarter. Other faculty speakers include Margot Gerritsen, who focuses on computational mathematics and energy production; David Lobell, who studies crops from space to understand agriculture; Marshall Burke, who researches the social and economic impacts of environmental change; and Biondo Biondi, who improves imaging of seismic data to better understand Earth’s subsurface.

As a student, I was into stellar astronomy until I started caring about human beings and decided I would do something that helped people and impacted society.

In addition to the faculty lectures, undergraduates will learn the basics of data wrangling, analysis, and visualization they can apply to solving environmental and sustainability challenges. Students will hear from an alumni panel and participate in an optional field trip to “the Hive” (HANA Immersive Visualization Environment), a 10-foot-tall, 24-foot-wide scientific visualization wall located in the Huang Engineering Center.

“There’s certainly a need for a course like this,” said Undergraduate Program Director Emily Atkinson, who helped shape curriculum for the course. “I think students are really interested in a skills-based education.”

The course creates a more accessible way for undergraduates to engage with Stanford Earth, whether they intend to declare a major with the school or not. It is part of a triad of 1-credit courses that includes the school’s traditional introductory course, Know Your Planet: Research Frontiers (Earth 1A), a faculty and alumni meet-and-greet to learn firsthand how studying Earth sciences can help solve global problems and lead to successful careers. A third component of the series, Know Your Planet: Science Outside (Earth 1C), will be offered during Spring Quarter.

“This [Big Earth] course would be one of many ways I’d like to show undergraduates that geophysics is more like the popular perception of astrophysics — a cool way to use math and physics to understand the natural world,” said Schroeder, who teaches in the Department of Geophysics. “As a student, I was into stellar astronomy until I started caring about human beings and decided I would do something that helped people and impacted society.”