WWU Team Creates Affordable Aquarium Controller

In his 2023 sabbatical report, James Foster, Walla Walla University assistant professor of computer science, published a detailed description of a new aquarium tank controller, describing the design, construction and customization of the device. 

Foster helped write the software for this device, along with John Foster, associate professor of mathematics, and several senior computer science majors. Additional contributions to the device's physical build were made by other WWU professors from the biology and engineering departments.

This new controller makes studying the effects of ocean acidification on marine life more affordable. The original idea and design for this device came from Kirt Onthank, associate professor of biology. While planning for his ocean acidification research, Onthank found that the necessary equipment was about $7,500 per tank. With help from WWU engineering professors, Onthank built a more cost-effective prototype, which he took to the computer science department for help with perfecting the software. 

Now, the device can manipulate a tank's pH and temperature, provide a user interface for setting configuration values and observing current values, record configurations and observations to a micro-SD card, and allow web-based management and reporting. It is capable of all of these tasks thanks to the software programming expertise of WWU professors and senior computer science majors.

Every year, senior computer science majors are required to work on a project of their choosing, but this was a special opportunity for those involved. Since the tank controller project had been ongoing for almost four years, the long-running nature of the project meant participants could learn how to use software written by someone else. Working outside of your own code is an important skill in the computer science field. The significant cross-departmental collaboration allowed students to work and communicate with peers from other disciplines. 

Foster said another unique appeal this project presented was its global influence and relevance. Students enjoy "playing a part in something that has significance beyond oneself." The design and construction specifications, described by Foster, were published to HardwareX — a peer-reviewed, open-access scientific journal. Now, anyone can freely access and copy the design files for the device, and this affordable technology could make ocean acidification research more available beyond WWU, bringing the scientific world closer to understanding the impacts of ocean acidification. 

While this was not the first instance of cross-departmental collaboration for the computer science department, it has been the most impactful — having a greater amount of both professor and student involvement, with a more global influence. 

WWU's small class sizes offer excellent opportunities for close collaboration with expert professors and lots of interdisciplinary learning opportunities for students. Foster said he looks forward to similar computer science projects in the future. 

To learn more about the WWU computer science department, go to wallawalla.edu/cs. To read the full published work on the ocean acidification tank controller, go to hardware-x.com.