UW-Eau Claire: Recognized as National Player in Development of Computational Science Program

EAU CLAIRE — The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is one of a handful of schools across the country that are at the forefront of the development of new undergraduate programs in computational science thanks to the efforts and foresight of a group of faculty members who have taken to heart UW-Eau Claire’s designation as the UW System’s Center of Excellence for Faculty and Undergraduate Research Collaborations.

According to physics and astronomy professor Dr. Paul Thomas and associate professor of mathematics Dr. Marc Goulet, two of the faculty members most involved in developing the program at UW-Eau Claire, computational science has emerged as a new multidisciplinary field over the past decade. Although it merges the disciplines of computer science and applied mathematics, it differs from either in that its focus is on the application of computing to solve problems in other disciplines, particularly in the natural sciences and engineering.

Examples of applications in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, geography and other sciences include molecular modeling, computational chemistry, stellar and planetary systems study, thermodynamics, seismic modeling, geographic information systems, and atmospheric and oceanic circulation models. Many of these applications are vital to issues of public health, national security and economics.

At UW-Eau Claire, computational science is offered as a minor to complement students’ majors. The department of physics and astronomy acts as the coordinating department for the program. According to Thomas, computational science has typically been something most students didn’t get heavily involved with until graduate school. But that’s changing rapidly.

“Using computers to solve complex problems or model outcomes is now so pervasive an idea in the sciences that undergraduate students need to encounter it when they are encountering key ideas in their fields,” said Thomas. “Computers allow us to solve sets of equations where many different things are going on simultaneously, using mathematical approaches to “super simplify” complex problems that would otherwise be unsolvable,” Thomas said.

Senior Steve Henke, Shawano, who has a double major in physics and mathematics, is a computational science minor who’s been working on one of those complex problems. He and Thomas are collaborating on a faculty/student research project that involves using computers to investigate the effects of comet impacts with objects in the outer solar system.

“This type of research helps scientists understand how a comet impact influences the development of features on an object’s surface and can even hint at its interior composition,” said Henke. “In our research, we are attempting to uncover the role comets play in transporting organics, the basic building blocks of life, across our solar system. By analyzing the extreme conditions the organics are exposed to in a comet impact, we will attempt to quantify how much organic material would survive under a variety of scenarios.”

Goulet said most students choosing the computational science minor at UW-Eau Claire have been physics, biology or mathematics majors who are interested in solving complex real-world problems. Goulet first encountered computational science in the late ’80s when he was a graduate student at Oregon State University.

“The computational science minor is like a tool kit,” said Goulet. “It builds a complementary experience for students that enables them to gain a stronger command of their major.”

Darin Mohr, Appleton, one of Goulet’s former students who is now a mathematics graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Iowa, said for him the program was “a perfect fit.”

“Although mathematics is my passion, I enjoy many other disciplines and computational science gave me the opportunity to fuse my mathematics knowledge with other hard science areas,” said Mohr. “I feel that the computational science program prepared me well for the challenges of applied mathematics at the U of Iowa. The use of computers is an integral part of applied mathematics, and the knowledge I gained from the program has helped me to adjust quickly.”

Carolyn Otto, Phillips, a current math major also taking the computational science minor, said she also enjoys applying her math skills to other disciplines. She called the program environment “ideal” and said she could not ask for a more supportive environment from faculty and students.

“My class right now has four students and three professors,” said Otto. “We discuss problems that we might be interested in exploring and the students work collaboratively with help from the faculty. The students work on the problems, and then we present our findings and questions to the professors; together we all brainstorm ideas about how to proceed.”

Otto said her class had just finished a project about modeling subsurface melt-through events in the oceans of Europa.

“We considered a typical section of Europa’s ice-ocean system found at steady state thickness. We then investigated how plumes of different heat flow affect the icy layer above,” said Otto. “Specifically, we calculated the time it takes for the ice to melt to the steady state thickness and the time to refreeze. Our results were presented in a poster at Student Research Day this year. Currently we are trying to apply our model to a small moon of Saturn named Enceladus.”

Although various faculty members have contributed to the development and support of computational science for many years, UW-Eau Claire’s program finally gained national attention in February 2003 when Goulet and Interim Associate Vice Chancellor and Dean of Graduate Studies Andrew Phillips, who was then chair of the department of computer science, attended the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics Conference on Computational Science and Engineering in San Diego to present two papers on computational science, one of which was co-authored by Thomas. There they met Dr. Ignatios Vakalis, executive director of the Center of Computational Studies at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Vakalis invited them to be part of a consortium of institutions from around the country that were collaborating to develop class-tested materials and curricula for a variety of computational science classes. The goals of the Keck Undergraduate Computational Science Education Consortium include preparing the next generation of scientists to be equipped with the necessary computational tools, serving as a model for other institutions, and encouraging the development of other consortiums.

The consortium is funded by a grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations. With assets of more than $1 billion, the foundation focuses on awarding grants that invest in people and programs working to make a difference in quality of life issues, now and in the future.

Goulet said Vakalis was an important contact because he has been out in front when it comes to developing a standard for educational materials in computational science. Last fall Vakalis was honored with an Undergraduate Computational Engineering and Sciences Award from the Krell Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Being asked to be part of the Keck Consortium gave us a real boost and was a recognition of all the work we’d put into our program to that point,” said Goulet. “It made UW-Eau Claire a national player in the field of computational science.”

Other institutions in the consortium are Capital University, where Vakalis serves as the principal investigator for the Keck Foundation grant; College of the Holy Cross; Harvey Mudd College; The Ohio State University; Pomona College; San Diego State University; San Diego Supercomputer Center; Shodor Education Foundation; Skidmore College; Wittenberg University; and Wofford College.

“Over the next year we had a lot of contact with the Keck Consortium,” said Goulet. “During the summer we worked on writing modules that could be shared between institutions, and we tested them in our capstone class.”

Because computational science isn’t the exclusive territory of any one department, the principals involved in developing curricula completed their development work and taught computational science classes over and above their regular departmental work and class loads. In addition to Thomas, Goulet and Phillips, other UW-Eau Claire faculty involved in the computational science minor have included Dr. Harry Jol, associate professor of geography and anthropology; Dr. Brian Mahoney, professor of geology; Alex Smith, professor of mathematics; Dr. D. Lonzarich, associate professor of biology; Dr. Warren Gallagher, associate professor of chemistry; and Dr. Fred King, professor of chemistry.

“There is a national trend toward emphasizing interdisciplinary connections between the traditional science disciplines, because some of the most significant advances in science occur at the interfaces between those fields,” said Phillips. “That’s what computational science is really about: bringing the power of mathematical modeling and computation to bear on the major challenges in science. The UW-Eau Claire minor in computational science is perfect for students who want to put their strong foundation in liberal education to the test by applying what they know from many diverse fields to some really exciting problems in science.”