Improving technology

A successful collaboration between WWU's computer science and biology departments


In his 2023 sabbatical report, James Foster, 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 mathematics faculty John Foster, and several senior computer science majors. Additional contributions to the device’s physical build were made by other university 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 associate professor of biology Kirt Onthank. While planning for his ocean acidification research, Onthank found that the necessary equipment was about $7,500 per tank. So, with help from university 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 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 on-going for almost four years, the long-running nature of the project meant that 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 says 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, and to read the full published work on the ocean acidification tank controller, go to

Posted Feb. 26, 2024

A small octopus in a hand-held tank