Photo via istock.com/valio84sl

Agricultural students at Langston University in Central Oklahoma are learning how technology – and especially its NASA-related applications – is shaping the future of farming.

Specifically, they’re gaining this knowledge through a course that has been taught at the university since 2002 – Geographical Information Systems/Global Position System (GIS/GPS) in Agriculture.

“It’s tailor-made for agriculture students with a technology application for agriculture,” says Steve Zeng, chair of the school’s Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Today, of course, many aspects of agriculture require knowledge of GIS/GPS, such as beef cattle management, water quality testing, soil survey, land survey – all these require GIS/ GPS.”

Marcio White, who worked in the field of technology in the U.S. Army for eight years and for the federal government another 12, has been teaching both an introduction and advanced version of the course at Langston for 12 years. He says the class uses modern technology such as drones, GPS data collectors and SLR digital cameras. It’s primarily for ag students, but it appeals to a wide range of others as well.

The class attracts students interested in biology, technology, math and the computer sciences.

“It’s an automated mapping class,” White explains. “It is a database system which takes features on the ground and coordinates information with the Cartesian coordinates system.

White says the class familiarizes students with the ArcView computer program.

“With our GPS units, I get them familiar with data collection in the field, where they go out and collect GPS points lines and polygons and attribute information out in the field of particular features, and then we process that information into the database, into the mapping system,” he says. “Once we do that, we’ll have accurate information about what’s in the field.”

Professor Mario White tests out drone with student. Photo courtesy of Roger Merkel

Tech for Trees

For a specific example, White points to a project his students completed to determine the conditions of the trees on the university campus. They created a digital inventory using GPS to classify the trees as being in poor, good or excellent condition.

“We inventoried all the trees so we could do maintenance and enhance the beautification of the campus,” he says.

Along similar lines, White helped lead a project to research how goats can be used to control a red cedar infestation. It involved the use of a drone with a high-resolution camera to take pictures at designated spots, with the goal to use goats instead of herbicides to eradicate invasive red cedar over a five-year period.

“It was a much more efficient way than manually going out and collecting the data,” White says.

Professor Mario White and some students test out a drone. Photo courtesy of Roger Merkel

Sky’s the Limit

In addition to the more grounded projects, White’s students have also been involved in research for matters well above Earth. For one, they are participating in the NASA OU Geospatial Institute and are part of a STEM team – as well as others from across the country – to take part in programs known as RockOn! and RockSat-C.

These involved several experiments that were launched in a two-stage Terrier-Improved Orion rocket from NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia, flight facility that flew to an altitude of 72 miles into outer space and landed 67 miles off the coast into the Atlantic Ocean.

Another project was done in support of the planned mission to Mars in 2033. NASA wants to use ag science students to do research on agriculture in space, seeking ways to grow food such as lettuce and tomatoes on the international space station.

“We’ve got a lot of exciting things we’re working on with NASA, and it’s all starting with the students in technology, STEM and agriculture science,” White says.

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