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Believe you can do it: Justin Vander Ploeg, student researcher

Posted: Jun 18, 2014


Justin used the zonal statistics as a tool to find the worst winter value for each county in the United States' lower 48 states.


Averaging millions of data values from NOAA took Justin hours of work.

When was the last time you worked with an Excel® spreadsheet that had 1 million rows? Or analyzed data from the past 50 years?

Those were only two of the challenges that Justin Vander Ploeg (senior, Manteno, Illinois) dealt with in completing his final project for Olivet’s course in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning System (GPS).

When beginning his project for the spring 2014 semester, Justin asked the question: “What county in the United States’ lower 48 states has the worst winter?” Working with his professor, Dr. Kevin Brewer, he undertook what became the biggest research project he’d ever done. The result is “An Analysis of the Severity of Winter Throughout the United States,” showing that it is possible to quantitatively determine the severity of winter across a geographic area.

Bring it on

Hard work isn’t unusual for Justin, who is double majoring in environmental science and business administration. This summer, he is working at Deer Creek Organics, an organic produce farm in St. Anne, Illinois, and also doing an internship at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) in Chicago.

CNT is an award-winning innovations laboratory for urban sustainability. Justin is part of the transportation team, dedicated to improving efficiency and sustainability for the City of Chicago.

“I’m glad I learned ArcGIS in my GIS/GPS course with Dr. Brewer,” Justin says. “I’m using it on the job in this internship.”

Dedication and determination

Learning ArcGIS was only one of the challenges that Justin faced in taking on and completing his GIS/GPS research project.

After deciding on the project’s parameters — with Dr. Brewer’s guidance — he requested 50 years (1963 to 2013) of weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA). That resulted in 18 Excel spreadsheets with 1 million rows each — which he received from NOAA at no charge and within two weeks of his original request.

Defining “worst” was the first challenge. Since “worst” is a subjective term, he had to define it as objectively and universally as possible.

He also had to decide what data to include and exclude. He limited his analysis to snowfall, rainfall, temperature and wind speed for the months of December, January, February and March — for the past 50 years.

Getting this data into a format he could use for analysis was one of the most challenging parts of the project. Working with Dr. Brewer, he separated columns, selected only winter months and eliminated false values. He used ArcGIS, the industry standard tool for spatial analysis, to format and analyze the data. 

“As I was working on the project, I was learning ArcGIS,” Justin says. “I also learned to be thorough and detailed, and to keep records that I can refer back to.”

Applying an equation to the data he gathered, Justin designed a map to show the severity of winter in every U.S. county.

“Justin tackled a deceptively complex problem that challenged his abilities and skills in a number of areas,” Dr. Brewer says. “I was impressed with his perseverance, independence and eagerness to learn new skills." 

“All his hard work paid off with an excellent and interesting report," Dr. Brewer adds. "But more importantly, Justin has new skills and practical experiences that he can use and build on in his future academic and career endeavors.”

More than expected

Getting to know and work with Dr. Brewer on this project was an unexpected benefit for Justin. “I tapped into Dr. Brewer’s expertise,” Justin says. “I was able to ask him questions whenever I needed help. Then we’d work through the issues together. He was willing to take the extra time with me, and we developed a friendship in the process.”

Justin appreciates seeing Dr. Brewer’s thought processes on different topics. “I learned that he’s very technologically minded, even as a geology professor. He is knowledgeable about the new advances in technology, too.”

“If I could have seen the finished project before I started, I would never have believed I could do it,” Justin adds. “I’ve learned that if I work hard and diligently, I can do what I want to do.”

In case you’re wondering, the counties with the worst winters are: Lewis County, New York (first); Keweenaw County, Michigan (second); and Oswego County, New York (third). And the counties with the best winters? Monroe County, Florida (first); Imperial County, California (second); and Miami-Dade County Florida (third).