Students excel in hyperspectral imaging research

Students from across the nation traveled to the Cedar Valley this summer to study hyperspectral imaging. For the second year, the University of Northern Iowa's geography department hosted the eight-week course for 10 undergraduate students hailing from all corners of the country.

Hyperspectral imaging
Ten undergraduate students from all corners of the country came to UNI to conduct research on hyperspectral imaging.

Hyperspectral imaging collects and processes information from across the visible and infrared spectrum. Much as the human eye sees visible light in three bands--red, green and blue--spectral imaging and hyperspectral imaging divides the spectrum into many more bands, hundreds even thousands more. This allows for the collecting of data invisible to the human eye.

The program, called Interdisciplinary Research Experience in Hyperspectral Imaging or IDREHSI, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), has two major goals. The first, to give students research experience with hyperspectral imaging, the second, teach students how to conduct scientific research. "A major problem for undergraduates, is they have no idea how to do scientific, professional research," said Bingqing Liang, assistant professor of geography, who co-led the program with Andrey Petrov and Ramanathan Sugumaran.

To accomplish these goals, the students selected and then completed their own individual projects. They completed a proposal, paper, presentation and a poster displaying their findings to those interested in their research. "On one hand, the students get experience in the field of hyperspectral imaging," said Liang. "On the other, they will also get experience on how to do research."

For the duration of the program, the students were housed in Roth on the UNI campus, and spent eight hours a day in the lab or in class, Monday through Friday. The program covered living expenses and food as well as a $4,000 dollar stipend. "You can say they were being paid to learn something," said Liang," but, essentially it was a job, and they needed to be here in the lab."

However, students had their weekends free. The program also took the students around the Midwest to explore what is being done in the field. "We tried to be very inclusive, giving our students as much information as we could," said Liang. "They got a sense, if they want to get a job in this field, what kind of jobs they can get."

Although housed in the geography department, the program is interdisciplinary. Students of any undergraduate focus may apply. "As long as they are good students, they don't need to have science backgrounds," said Liang. "For the purpose of this program, we assumed the students didn't know anything [about hyperspectral imaging.] We guided them from zero to a certain level of understanding in this field."

The program also benefits from faculty of different departments. For the students, there were a matching number of faculty members that act as personal mentors. When the students picked their project, they chose the faculty mentor with relevant expertise that would assist them in their research.

The faculty mentors also helped when determining which applicants would attend the program. When applying, students are asked to provide an idea of what they hoped to research. These goals were compared with the expertise of the available faculty, and their goals and desires. "It may have been a great idea, but it may have been too difficult for us to provide suggestions for the research topic," said Laing. Because there were over sixty applicants and the selection is competitive, students who would have received the greatest benefit were chosen.

Liang said it was important to know what the students were planning to do after the summer and how they planned to use the experience. "We want to know how this program fits into their future, their career goals, their academic goals." After the program, students were encouraged to seek publications for their papers and research, or attend conferences to present their findings. 

This was the second year that this program was offered at UNI. It is on a three-year grant with the NSF, but after next summer there is a likelihood that the program will be extended.