Catalysts and Collaborations

A NASA/Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute collaboration is teaching students how to use NASA Earth observation data.
Image of the NASA/RPI poster created for the FUNding Friday event at the 2022 ESIP Summer Meeting in Pittsburgh, PA. Credit: ESIP.

The right conditions can be the catalyst to release the potential energy of an idea. Such a catalyst occurred at the 2022 Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) Summer Meeting that resulted in an innovative initiative between NASA and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY. ESIP provided the perfect venue to spark a collaboration that is helping RPI students create apps for using Earth observation data and teaching them how to use these data ethically.

The Catalyst

Created by NASA in 1998, ESIP is a community of data and information technology practitioners who coordinate Earth science interoperability efforts. Starting in 2008, a new feature was added to the last two days of the ESIP Summer Meeting—FUNding Friday.

“We spell FUNding Friday with a capital F-U-N since we want it to be a fun, creative, exciting experience at the end of the Summer Meeting,” says Susan Shingledecker, ESIP executive director. “We want it to be the catalyst that takes a great idea or a brainstorm that happens in a session or in a hallway conversation and creates the incentive to move an idea forward.”

FUNding Friday begins with a raucous, low-tech session where teams create posters about their ideas using flip chart paper and colored markers. “The teams work together on their posters Thursday into Friday morning, then we kick off our final meeting event on Friday with lightning presentations by the teams,” says Shingledecker. “All of the in-person meeting attendees get ballots and vote on the project ideas they most want to see funded.”

Two types of funding awards are given, one for regular meeting attendees and a second for teachers supporting grades K through 12. Cash awards range from $3,000 to $5,000 and include funding for award recipients to attend the next ESIP Summer Meeting to formally present their work and accomplishments. Since 2008, more than 90 member and student projects have received FUNding Friday awards.

It was in the FUNding Friday crucible that NASA and RPI developed a framework that has resulted in a year of discovery, work, and innovation.

The Connection

RPI faculty reached out to NASA several years ago to explore the possibility of having their graduate students work with large Earth observation datasets. Thilanka Munasinghe, a lecturer with the Information Technology and Web Science (ITWS) program in RPI’s School of Science, had his students work with these datasets in his data science and data analytics classes.

During the 2021 and 2022 ESIP Summer Meetings, Elizabeth Joyner, a Science Systems and Applications, Inc. (SSAI) contractor with NASA's Earth Science Data Systems (ESDS) Program and the ESDS community coordinator, saw presentations of work by Munasinghe and his RPI colleagues. At the 2022 summer meeting, she proposed that the RPI team join NASA ESDS in a FUNding Friday proposal to have RPI students use renewable energy data distributed by NASA to develop apps and explore ways of fostering better data use. This work would benefit both RPI and NASA: RPI students would gain experience working with real-world data and developing apps; NASA’s ESDS would gain better insight into how renewable energy data can be used in the development of a new Renewable Energy Data Pathfinder.

The team’s FUNding Friday pitch for Next Generation Tools for Democratizing Data Exploration in NASA Data Pathfinders was selected for funding. Over the next year, Joyner and Ross Bagwell, a SSAI contractor supporting NASA’s Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) Project as principal systems engineer, guided RPI students in using NASA Earth observation data in classes taught by Munasinghe and his RPI colleagues Dr. Brian Robert Callahan and Dr. Kathy Fontaine. Callahan is an ITWS lecturer and director of the Rensselaer Cybersecurity Collaboratory. Fontaine is an ITWS senior lecturer and the program manager for the IBM/RPI Artificial Intelligence (AI) research collaboration. 

“We put a FUNding Friday presentation together that has three parts,” says Fontaine. “One is Thilanka’s class working with the datasets on renewable energy in the fall and spring, one is Brian’s class developing apps, and one is my class on ethical informatics, which looks at ethical issues around the research.”

The Work

During the fall 2022 semester, eight student groups worked on projects related to renewable energy in Munasinghe’s data science classes, and Joyner and Bagwell worked with the students every other week. “We discussed, explored, and analyzed data related to renewable energy applications. We conducted machine learning applications, data analytics, and built machine learning models,” says Munasinghe. “With the help of Elizabeth Joyner and Ross Bagwell, we identified what machine learning models can be used [to analyze these data].”

Using the data on which Munasinghe and his students worked, Callahan and his students created apps to enable use of these data by a broader range of data users. “We took the work that Thilanka did and turned it into real-world web applications,” says Callahan.


Both Munasinghe and Callahan used renewable energy data available through NASA’s Prediction Of Worldwide Energy Resources (POWER) Application Programming Interface (API). The students also drew on socioeconomic data related to energy resources available through NASA’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC). The classes explored data relating to variables including solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, precipitation effects, and impacts of natural events on power stations and the power grid.

A unique student opportunity was the ability to explore the ethical implications of the data work they were doing. This ethical element was led by Fontaine. “The students had to answer the question ‘If this were to become an app, what would the ethical implications be?’” she says. “Given that this is a class project, there’s some really good insights into what ethically needs to be taken into account when you are building an app with open data.”

The Results

Over the past year, students in RPI classes led by Munasinghe, Fontaine, and Callahan, with input and assistance from NASA’s Joyner and Bagwell, analyzed many factors contributing to the use of renewable energy as well as hinderances to the suitability of using these resources in particular locations (such as internal conflict within a nation or a higher risk from hurricanes, typhoons, and other natural disasters). Along with a broader understanding of how to work with data, the RPI students also gained a better understanding of how data ethically should be used.

“The ideas of pausing to think about whether you should be using a dataset or the implications of combining datasets or making data widely available is something new to them,” Fontaine says. “The students left my class with the understanding that it’s not automatic that every dataset you have is 100% usable 100% of the time.”

Callahan agrees with the success of this collaboration. “My students noted that they felt like they were able to be part of something much bigger than themselves in developing these applications for NASA, and they loved it,” he says. “They [gained] an understanding of why and how the skillsets they’re developing matter, how these skills can be used to solve problems they didn’t even know were problems before the beginning of the semester, and how to grow themselves into not just being experts in developing web applications, but also enveloping an Earth science perspective that working with NASA has enabled them to have.”

Munasinghe notes that his students also had a real-world example of having to pivot their research when their initial focus on solar panel energy in California had to change due to torrential rain that washed away solar panels they were assessing. With help from NASA’s Bagwell, the class was able to shift its focus to run a different analysis on the data. “The students got to learn how to quickly pivot to a machine learning project due to changes in the real world,” he says. “When you’re doing something that has a real-world impact on humans and the community, it motivates the students.”

The Future


The RPI team is preparing several articles for submission to professional journals about this work. RPI faculty and students, including students involved in the work, will be at the 2023 ESIP Summer Meeting in Burlington, VT, July 17 to 21 to present discoveries resulting from this FUNding Friday project.

The RPI team is pleased with the experience and anticipates the NASA/RPI collaboration will continue. “[Our students] are the next frontier, right?” Munasinghe says. “They’re the next generation of scientists and engineers. We instructors take the back seat and let them lead.”

Fontaine agrees. “NASA has the data, ESIP has the connections and the interest and the expertise, and we’ve got the students who are eager to learn,” she says. “I think it’s a really good fit.”

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