MSU Professor and Troy High School Students' Collaboration Leads to Award-Winning Climate Research

May 9, 2019

It’s called by many names—engagement, extension, outreach—and it’s at the very core of MSU’s Land Grant mission.  It is when university educators and researchers work directly with citizens to advance knowledge and transform lives.

Such was a paradigm case when two, very talented Troy High School students connected with Dr. Grant Gunn, assistant professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences.


Kevin Zhou, a junior, and Peizhi ‘Peipei’ Liu, a senior, were interested in doing climate change research, in general, and, more specifically, identifying a project that involved remote sensing data analysis.  They needed some guidance on framing such a study and, via Internet searching, found Gunn, whose research interests coincided with their own.

“Peipei and I first got interested in remote sensing as a subject because we did it in Science Olympiad together,” says Kevin.  “There was an event just called remote sensing; it was specifically about how satellite data could be used to track climate change. We got interested in the subject because of doing that event. As a result, we decided to search for professors in the nearby area.”

“We found Dr. Gunn's work to be especially interesting because he specializes in frozen areas and specifically remote sensing involving those regions, Kevin continues.  “So we contacted him out of the blue asking if he would help us pursue this type of project.  And he was very willing to do so. He was very open and willing to help us, and we are very grateful for what he has helped us do.”

“I received an email in July from Kevin and Peizhi asking about potential projects,” explains Gunn. “We went back and forth, and they had a rough idea they wanted to do something with remote sensing, and they wanted to do something with an environment problem.”   

The resulting conversations led to testing a relatively new methodology on satellite data from the Canadian Arctic: “Utilizing Google Earth Engine to Retrieve the Devon Ice Cap’s Equilibrium Line Altitude.”  The Equilibrium Line Altitude (ELA) is the height of a glacier at which snow accumulation and ice loss are equal.  Because glaciers melt from the bottom, the higher the ELA, the greater the ice/snow loss.

The focal point of the project was to see how fast and effective Google Earth Engine (GEE) could be in processing a vast amount of accumulated data on the Devon Ice Cap, calculations that would have taken months using more conventional climate data analysis tools.

They found GEE was exceedingly fast and effective when compared to other research-related tools—saving literally hundreds of hours of investigator time.

Another result of the research:  their work was the number one team project at the prestigious Science and Engineering Fair of Metro Detroit and involved environmental research.  And this month, they will be in Phoenix to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the largest international pre-college science competition in the U.S.

Regarding climate change research writ large, both Zhou and Liu, while measured and somewhat philosophical, had no doubts about its continuing importance. 

“The debate right now is not whether climate change exists, but rather about its causes—whether it's caused by human-related activities,” says Liu. “Or is it caused by natural processes.  I believe people can have their own opinions on this, but we must also all realize that whether it's caused by humans or environmental factors, its effect will apply to both us and the environment. Whether or not we can mitigate climate change or help solve this issue is partly up to us, but also partly up to nature itself.”

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