NASA DEVELOP Program at CSU remains innovative after going virtual

develop logoSince its inception in 2012, the Colorado – Fort Collins NASA DEVELOP location at Colorado State University, part of NASA’s Earth Applied Sciences Program, has grown steadily now engaging approximately 24 participants annually. Until March 2020, CSU teams completed six projects each year in a variety of natural-resource related application areas, in-person. Then on March 23, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, CSU President Joyce McConnell moved all university operations, teaching and learning to online services for the remainder of Spring semester. DEVELOP went completely virtual, challenging its leadership and students to adapt.

Despite the virtual switch, DEVELOP, housed by the CSU Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory (NREL) and the USGS Fort Collins Science Center, has stayed innovative in using NASA science to address environmental issues and answer important questions even while working virtually throughout the pandemic.

“By nature, DEVELOP is already an innovative program because we’re always thinking about new technologies and cutting-edge science, we’re ready to jump into the unknown, and this is just another challenge” said NREL research scientist and node primary investigator Dr. Paul Evangelista.

“Scientists as a whole share the perspective of looking to answer the unknown, find solutions, and have the courage to address big societal problems.”


DEVELOP addresses environmental and public policy issues through interdisciplinary research projects that apply the lens of NASA Earth observations to community concerns around the globe. It typically has teams of four participants that collaborate to tackle applied research projects over the course of 10-week project terms. Transitioning to a virtual collaborative environment has provided the teams the opportunity to learn new ways to conduct innovative research.

NREL and the DEVELOP National Program Office provided the necessary technology resources to enable continued success. Even still, switching the project teams from working together in person to virtual operations spanning four time zones posed a unique challenge.

“We had some concerns about how to keep meetings inclusive and how best to engage with the teams,” said Kristen Dennis, DEVELOP Lead and geoinformatics Fellow. “This program is fast-paced already, and it could be difficult to keep up, so we needed to meet the participants at their level, provide resources and figure everything out logistically while providing opportunities for real-life problem solving, which is a skill participants want to learn.”

The completely online summer term posed other challenges.

“We really like to get teams in the field and had planned local summer projects that allowed for site visits, and had concerns about how to get that same experience, especially for out-of-state participants who may have never been anywhere near project study areas” said Dr. Anthony Vorster, a science advisor and post doc at NREL.

However, virtual DEVELOP provided some unexpected advantages by increasing accessibility and inclusivity for participants who may be unwilling or unable to move for the short term.

“DEVELOP is conscious of equality and inclusion, and it’s a topic we’re reflecting on. While going virtual has its challenges, de-centralizing is also an opportunity for greater accessibility and reaching broader audiences,” Vorster said.

Additionally, being online still allowed for end-of-summer closeout presentations, as well as Earth Applied Sciences Week, in which Project Leads present the work their team completed over the term.

“One of the coolest things was that since we were online, we were able to do closeouts with other locations and form camaraderie and connections, and still managed to do Applied Sciences Week and learn about projects at other locations” said Eric Jensen, NREL graduate student and summer 2020 Project Lead for Rocky Mountain Disasters. “It was really great that we were still able to have the program happen.”

With one online term complete, supervisors feel that they are better prepared to carry out future projects virtually. They credit support from the network of collaborators as crucial for success, along with techniques for project management and collaboration. Newer technologies, like virtual machines for facilitation of software licensing, have helped the teams stay on track to finish projects and create deliverables for their stakeholders. “From the summer term, we learned that the online format might be more promising than we originally thought” said Evangelista. “We now know how to look for workarounds to keep the program at a high-quality educational opportunity for participants.”

DEVELOP and NREL: Creating Connections in Colorado and Beyond

The CSU DEVELOP location is unique in that it typically supports two projects per term. DEVELOP taps into the knowledge of natural resource ecology found in the scientists of NREL, allowing for projects to be centered on natural-resource related questions. These projects also allow NREL to cultivate relationships not only in Colorado, but around the United States.

fishers peak
Fisher’s Peak State Park. Photo: Kristen Dennis

One such project from summer 2020 attempted to quantify and map biomass in the newly established Fisher’s Peak State Park, Colorado’s newest and second largest state park. Collaborators included Colorado Parks and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy, united with the common goal of developing the park in a manner that also conserves rich habitats and biodiversity. While a difficult undertaking, the team was able to identify and improve biomass estimation methods.


The map on the left shows a LiDAR derived canopy height map. Canopy height generally increases from west to east across the property, and the highest canopy heights are along the base of the cliffs at the east end of the property. The map on the right shows the deviation of canopy height from the average canopy height across the property as a metric of complexity in canopy structure. Maps: Fischer’s Peak Project Team

Biomass estimation is important for a multitude of applications, one being quantifying the forest carbon stored (half of tree biomass is carbon), and thus the potential for carbon emission offsets through carbon markets, according to Evangelista and the Fisher’s Peak Ecological Forecasting project team.

The fall 2020 term started on September 14, and projects will include collaborations within Colorado and beyond. One project will focus on aspen recovery after the Spring Fire with implications for forest recovery and management in the face of more frequent and severe wildfires.

The other will analyze fog trends in California and Oregon and predict future fog suitability, with connections to conservation of redwood forests. This team will partner with both Save the Redwoods League and NREL, with advising from NREL PhD student, Brian Woodward.

Redwood trees. Photo: Brian Woodward

“We’re so excited to work on this project in partnership with Save the Redwoods League. The ability for participants to connect with one of the leading forest conservation organizations in the region on a project that promotes an understanding of the tallest trees on earth will be an incredibly unique experience.” said Woodward.

DEVELOP’s mission is to integrate NASA Earth observations with society to foster future innovation and cultivate the professionals of tomorrow by addressing diverse environmental issues today”. Learn more about the program and how to apply at

Written by Natalie Schmer, Editor, EcoPress.