18 Jun

Put A Bird In It: SLA Beeber’s Birdhouse


Now available: summer rental, 1BR with porch, ready for move-in at Science Leadership Academy’s Beeber campus. As detailed in a previous post, a group of 9th graders at the school spent the last 8 weeks designing, prototyping, and building solar-powered, webcam- and sensor-enabled birdhouses (and one bat box). Philadelphia Water and Public Workshop worked with the students to hone their ideas and craft the houses in the school’s excellent makerspace. Students Amani and Aaliyah worked on this honeycomb design that’s perfect for cavity nesters such as sparrows, wrens, and chickadees. The middle compartment is sized to contain the electronics and infrared nest camera.


Installation in the schoolyard came down to the very last day of school, so the majority of the observing, sensing and solar-powering will take place when classes resume in the fall. Two other birdhouses and a bat box are nearly ready for installation, too—we’ll be scouting locations around the city for them to be installed.


Thank you to Public Workshop’s Alex Gilliam and Jason Depenbrock, as well as sophomore Brodie Bauman, for their design and construction expertise. Additional thanks to Drexel’s ExCITe Center for purchasing materials. Summer is here but we’re still working—wait until you see the other designs.

17 Jun

Gimme Shelter (At The Refuge)

heinz_birdhouseWe are much belated in posting this news, but the first greenSTEM birdhouse was not installed at a school but rather at a wildlife refuge. The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum has long been one of our favorite green spots in Philadelphia. Easily accessible from I-95 near the airport, it’s a true urban refuge: Even as planes fly overhead and highway traffic blurs in the distance, you’re enveloped in 1,000 acres of freshwater tidal wetland and forested hiking/biking trails. It’s also a birder’s paradise, as hundreds of species of birds can be spotted at the refuge over the course of the year—from migratory shorebirds and raptors to turkeys and cavity nesters such as swallows and sparrows.

When we began building birdhouse prototypes, we met with deputy refuge manager Mariana Bergerson and wildlife biologist Brendalee Phillips to get some design tips, configure a wifi connection to stream nestcam video, and figure out placement. The last part was easy—the refuge’s visitor center has solar panels on its roof, so we put it in the meadow and aimed our solar panel the same way. See photo above—you’ll also notice some perches on the side of the birdhouse and spikes on the roof to prevent birds perching (and subsequently pooping) on the solar panel.

Birds moved in almost immediately. It’s an ongoing saga, but after the jump we begin the story of swallow vs. sparrow.

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02 Jun

For The Birds: greenSTEM Birdhouses Arrive at Philly Schools


Last year, greenSTEM focused on building Root Kits so that Philadelphia students could monitor the soil moisture levels in their school gardens and gain an understanding of water-related issues in an urban environment. However, the soil moisture data was pretty predictable. When it rained, the moisture readings went up. The soil would gradually dry and the readings would hover at low levels until the next big shower.  The project needed something to capture the students’ attentions and keep them checking in with the data. We also needed to get the sensors off the ground and off the grid.

Somewhere along the line the idea arrived: “What if we paired this environmental data collection with something else? What if we adapted it into the form of a solar-powered birdhouse?” Using the birdhouse as our sensor housing, we could now offer students a live video stream of birds nesting inside the house as well.

PAlexander_drilling (2)

And so, with the summer sun shining, we successfully installed our first birdhouses at two Philadelphia schools. On May 28, 7th grade students at Penn Alexander in West Philadelphia helped us assemble the birdhouse that now sits in their vegetable garden. We brought the pre-cut pieces of the birdhouse to the schoolyard and helped science teacher Stephanie Kearney’s students use cordless drills to make pilot holes and screw the pieces in place. They also took a look around the schoolyard with urban bird expert Tony Croasdale of Wild West Philly. With binoculars in hand, they found a few nests! PAlexander_birdwatching (2)

The next day, at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in Manayunk, we assembled a similar birdhouse with 7th graders from teacher Jose Ramos’ class and placed it in the school’s meadow. With both installations, we explained the purpose and components of the birdhouses to the students.

Cook_Wiss_crew (2)The first thing one notices about the birdhouse is the shiny black solar panel on the rooftop. The panel is placed facing south at a 40-degree angle, mimicking Philadelphia’s approximate 40-degree latitude on Earth, in order to optimize absorption of solar rays. This solar panel is attached to the birdhouse to charge the battery inside that provides power for the birdhouses’ camera and sensors.


The battery is located in one of the birdhouse’s two compartments. The bottom floor is a living space for the birds, but the top floor acts as a storage compartment for the technology that records video of the birds and takes soil moisture readings below. Battery-powered in the tech compartment are a Sleepy Pi and a Raspberry Pi. The Sleepy Pi, coded in Arduino, allows us to control when the video camera in the birdhouse turns on and off, cycling to conserve energy. The Sleepy Pi connects to the soil moisture sensor and a temperature sensor that take readings every hour and transmit the data via wifi to data.greenSTEMnetwork.org. Meanwhile, a PiNoir camera creates a video stream of the birds inside, and an infrared LED lights up the interior of the birdhouse just enough for us to see our subjects. The video stream can be viewed by students on their school’s network.

We’ll document all the technical details and challenges in the coming weeks, both on the blog and through sharing code and schematics. But for now, we’re hoping to get birds nesting in the new houses before school lets out.

All of this would not have been possible without assistance from the School District of Philadelphia (who are partly responsible for this whole project) and IT guru George Li, who set up wifi networks for both birdhouses. Special thanks to Rachel Odoroff from the Fairmount Water Works for her teaching expertise and involvement in the project.