Students Use High-Tech Analytics to Optimize Plant Growth

Adjunct professor Ryan O’Connor consults students enrolled in an Internet of Things course that uses emerging technology to improve plant life at UConn’s Spring Valley Farm. Students, from left, are Nicole Hamilton '19 (BUS), Tara Watrous '19 (CLAS), and Radhika Kanaskar '18 (BUS). (Claire Hall/UConn School of Business)
Adjunct professor Ryan O’Connor consults students enrolled in an Internet of Things course that uses emerging technology to improve plant life at UConn’s Spring Valley Farm. Students, from left, are Nicole Hamilton ’19 (BUS), Tara Watrous ’19 (CLAS), and Radhika Kanaskar ’18 (BUS). (Claire Hall/UConn School of Business)

On select Tuesday nights, senior Radhika Kanaskar pops on warm boots and a heavy coat, and prepares for her management information systems class at UConn’s Spring Valley Farm.

Having class in a greenhouse, five miles away from the bustle of the main campus in Storrs, appeals to Kanaskar because it merges her interests in gardening, sustainability, and information technology, all in one place.

She and 14 classmates are using data analytics and emerging technology to bring greater predictability to managing the university’s aquaponics facility, and a dedicated greenhouse for herbs, at the farm off Spring Manor Road, near the Depot Campus.

“I didn’t really need another class this semester, but it sounded so cool, I signed up,” Kanaskar said of the course titled Introduction to Industrial IoT. “This is really a unique experience. My friends are jealous.”

Emerging Tech Skills Sought by Companies Worldwide

Jon Moore, an instructor-in-residence, said the course developed after students packed a workshop on the Internet of Things (IoT) last spring. IoT is any system that uses sensors, software, electronics and connectivity to collect and exchange information with other devices, a human operator or a manufacturer. The emerging technology is gaining tremendous attention as a tool to solve business needs.

In the early weeks of the course, which is offered by the business school, students learned about about aquaponics and how technology can enhance the effort to develop sustainable farming. Initially they became familiar with the sensors and how to compile data and monitor conditions for the fish.

During the second phase of the class, the students applied what they’d learned to grow oregano, thyme and sage in an adjacent greenhouse. Students monitor the greenhouse air temperature, soil humidity, electricity usage and other data, which is stored on dashboards that can be accessed from anywhere, not just the farm itself. The dashboard is created using a data analytics tool called Splunk.

“Students just love this project because they can see the immediate impact that data analytics are having on the farm,” said Moore, who is also the director of the School of Business’ emerging technology program called OPIM Innovate. “This type of hands-on learning translates to real-world skills in emerging technology, which is highly sought after by companies worldwide.”

“This technology is very new, and up-and-coming,” said Ryan O’Connor, an adjunct professor who is teaching the course. “The business advantages of using a piece of software like Splunk are really limitless.”

The students have designed their dashboards to notify them if, for example, the greenhouse becomes too cold, or if a door was left open, O’Connor said. The dashboard can be accessed from a computer, phone, or Apple TV.

“This generation does things differently,” O’Connor said. “They are more mobile and want information that is more agile. Now, it’s in their pockets.”

The project at Spring Valley Farm is a collaborative effort by the School of Business, the School of Engineering, and the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. It is part of the School of Business’ larger initiative to give students knowledge and experience with data analytics, virtual reality, microcontrollers, 3D printing and other emerging technology.

Moore said the MIS program will continue to work with teams at Splunk to bring cutting-edge, analytics-based curriculum to UConn students. In the spring, the School will be offering a special-topics course on “Foundation of Machine Learning,” which will focus on using the Splunk Machine Learning Toolkit.

“We are in the process of investigating and vetting real-world projects to implement further experiential learning,” Moore said, noting that there are some exciting projects on the horizon that he can’t yet discuss.

‘Everything Today Can Be More Automated’

Back in the greenhouse, Abigail Chromik, a junior MIS major with a minor in analytics, said once she recognized the potential of IoT in business, she was eager to learn more.

“This class is definitely different from most. With our aquaponics project we could monitor everything in the environment and watch for dangerous levels. To apply this technology to a larger farm could definitely save a business a great deal of money,” she said. “It seems everything today can be more automated.”

Chromik, who has an internship at CIGNA, said she has learned that it’s acceptable not to know everything, but that a willingness to learn is the best way to stand out in the workplace.

Nicole Hamilton, an MIS major, said she enjoys innovative technology and was familiar with Splunk through an internship and part-time work at United Technologies Corp. “Now I can say, ‘Oh, I’ve had experience with that.’ We talk about the ways you can better use data and how Splunk can help,” she said. “To be in the forefront of using a new tool like this is eye-opening, and inspires me to better use technology.”

“On Tuesdays I love coming to the farm,” Hamilton continued. “I think IoT is helping businesses make better decisions, which are so critical now. I’ve enjoyed trying to figure out how we can help the farm and its operations using sensor data.”