NWC and Computer Science Students Dive Into Nebraska’s Groundwater

Three people working together at table looking at laptop

What’s the vadose zone? That’s the common response when anyone is asked about this feature of the earth. Indeed, it was the response a group of University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) computer science students first had. Today, those students are part of the School of Computing’s Senior Design capstone program, where industry and academic sponsors work with talented undergraduates who create professional-grade software, hardware and IoT applications.

By partnering with NWC on their senior design project, these students learned how the vadose zone acts as the earth’s skin, regulating the storage, transport and transformation of agrichemicals between the crop root zone and water table. What happens to chemicals in this zone can impact the quality of Nebraska’s most abundant yet precious natural resource — groundwater. With greater understanding of this zone, water managers can better predict groundwater contamination and how to implement interventions at the source.

This year, the students worked on revamping the Nebraska Vadose Zone website. The centerpiece is an interactive map where data on agrichemicals (like nitrate) is collected, processed, analyzed and shared for the general public. The group is increasing the site’s user experience; enabling data uploading and verification; and sharing results through interactive mapping.

Working on the project revealed important connections between food and the environment. “You don’t think about the fertilizer applications to grow your food. This is a nice window into what you don’t see every day," said senior Cody Binder.

Will Swiston noted the geographic disconnect he felt as a native Chicagoan. “I had no idea about fertilizer getting into the water table,” he said. “I learned a lot about the science from this project.”

Senior Design Project Manager Bill Browning is interested in a different type of chemistry. “I’m always impressed by how five students who don't know each other come together to work for a common goal.”

Read more about the vadose zone